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.
Are you shocked by this? Then you haven't been paying attention. The news came within hours of another high-profile loss for the Times, Andy Mills, a producer at the Times' popular podcast, "The Daily," who similarly resigned amidst a campaign from his own colleagues. Mills and McNeil join editorial page editor James Bennet who was fired and opinion page editor and writer and editor Bari Weiss who resigned; both were also subjected to concerted and successful public efforts by their colleagues to get them out of the Times.
Taken together, these episodes reveal a new kind of journalistic culture focused on ferreting out alleged crimes from one's own colleagues, or even inventing them.
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."
This description, however, raised more questions than it answered. What was the context in which he uttered the slur? Was it a quote from a book or movie? Was it a discussion about the ethics of hip-hop culture? Or the merits of reading Mark Twain? If the Daily Beast reporters knew the answers, they were not telling the reader. This was no accident; the point was not to find out what happened, but to make the biggest scandal possible.
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.
The pattern has become sadly all too predictable: Pick an employee who's getting a lot of sunshine that maybe you think should be going to other people. Accuse him or her of a transgression, of making a mistake, of wrong-think. Anyone who questions the accusation can themselves be put in the spotlight: Why are you defending this person? Maybe you, too, are a transgressor; shall we have a look?
Of course, journalists do not admit this is also about ambition; maybe they do not see it that way. Maybe they see the public immolation of their colleagues as just something you do on the road to progress, something you do to Times food writer Alison Roman when you dig up a 12 year-old photo of her dressed for Halloween as Amy Winehouse and accuse her of cultural appropriation for dressing as a chola. Maybe you have your eye on Andy Mills and would like some of that success yourself. Why not start a campaign accusing him of entitlement and male privilege and bang the drum until staying his job at the Times becomes untenable? Maybe you'd like the distinguished career of Donald McNeil and assume there'll be more room for you if he's out of the way. Not that it works that way, which people will find out when they try to do these jobs, when they try to build things up rather than just tear things down; when they actually look into the stories before tweeting they are "speechless" that McNeil still has a job and commending the Daily Beast for its "phenomenal reporting."
The reporting in the Daily Beast is not phenomenal. I hesitate to even call it reporting. It seems more a device to furnish the reader with just enough information to see the accused, someone they may not have heard of five minutes earlier, as a racist, as a sexist, as a transphobe, charges that might rob them of status, might make them unemployable.
All of which, despite the dismissals of intent, strike me as very intentional, as trap-setting: Make the traps wide enough to encompass both real and phantom transgressions, wide enough to cover years, decades, centuries if needed. Develop in the audience a hunger for the public destruction of others and then satisfy that hunger. Then do it again. Make your bones bringing people down. Go after the big fish, dredge something up, big or little, true or not, so long as it has the right indelible radioactive markers— racism, sexism, transphobia—then sit back and let social media do its thing.
Is this journalism? 150 people who still have jobs at the New York Times seem to think so.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.