Posted on February 9, 2021

The New York Times Succumbed to Another Mob

Nancy Rommelmann, Newsweek, February 7, 2021

Donald McNeil Jr., the New York Times’ award-winning science reporter of 45 years, no longer works at the paper of record after his use of a “racist slur” while on a Times-sponsored trip to Peru with students in 2019 became public.

The news that McNeil was out represented an about face: At first, the Times stood by him after the story was leaked in a Daily Beast article on January 28. Though McNeil showed “extremely poor judgment,” Dean Baquet wrote initially, “it did not appear to me that his intentions were hateful or malicious.” But an angry letter from 150 Times staffers to Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger seems to have sealed McNeil’s fate; by Friday, he was no longer a New York Times employee.


The misrepresentations in McNeil’s case were already there in the Daily Beast article, which was given the headline, “Star NY Times Reporter Accused of Using ‘N-Word.” The star in question was McNeil, who joined the paper in 1976 and who, before the Daily Beast piece ran, was having a pretty good week, publishing an interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci and appearing, as he has throughout the pandemic, on an episode of The Daily.

The accusation against McNeil, as reported by the Daily Beast, was that during the 2019 student trip to Peru, on which he served as an expert, McNeil “repeatedly made racist and sexist comments… and suggested he did not believe in white privilege.” The Times conducted an internal examination of the incident and concluded that McNeil “had used bad judgment by repeating a racist slur in the context of a conversation about racist language.”


Here’s what actually happened: A student asked McNeil if a classmate of hers should have been suspended for a video she made as a 12-year-old in which she used a racial slur. “To understand what was in the video, I asked if she had called someone else the slur or whether she was rapping or quoting a book title,” McNeil recalled in a letter to his former colleagues. “In asking the question, I used the slur itself.”

In other words, in attempting to answer a question, he repeated part of the question. That’s it. No wonder Baquet concluded he had no malintent. What adult can’t see a difference between using a slur and referring to a slur in the context of a conversation about slurs? But as it turns out, in American journalism in 2021, a conversation about racist language is a priori racist, and in the fight against racism, intent was going to have to take it on the chin.

This seemed to be the position of the 150 Times employees whose letter to Sulzberger clearly stated that McNeil’s intent was “irrelevant;” that what mattered was “how an act makes the victims feel.”

That journalists at a media company whose motto is “All the News That’s Fit to Print” no longer consider intent relevant should send a chill through you. This isn’t journalism. It’s time to call it what it is: a power grab.