A full-blown war has erupted inside the New York Times over the ouster of long-time science reporter Donald McNeil for his use of the N-word on a trip to Peru in 2019.

Current and former staffers have been locked in heated debate since McNeil’s removal last week over whether it was justified, including on Twitter and in private Facebook group posts reviewed by conservative Web site Washington Free Beacon.

“What ever happened to the notion of worker solidarity … to giving a fellow worker the benefit of the doubt,” ex-Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse reportedly groused in the private Facebook group.

Greenhouse accused staffers who pushed for McNeil’s ouster of being “far more willing to sympathize with these privileged 15- and 16-year-olds than with a long-time colleague who has done much great work for the Times over the years.”

That prompted Times crossword columnist Deb Amlen to accuse Greenhouse of victim blaming. “Why is it that the focus in discussions like this almost always [is] on ruining the perpetrator’s life, and not those who were harmed,” she asked. 

The Times initially slapped McNeil, a 45-year veteran and its top coronavirus reporter, on the wrist over his use of the N-word by letting him keep his job with a reprimand. Times executive editor Dean Baquet said he made that decision after determining that McNeil had used the N-word “without malice.”

Then came a letter signed by 150 staffers demanding that McNeil be “disciplined.” The Times quickly reversed itself and McNeil resigned Friday.

Steven Greenhouse
Steven Greenhouse

In explaining the change of heart, Baquet and managing editor Joe Kahn told staffers: “We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.”

But now the Times is contending with the internal backlash from that reversal, as well as questions about what its race policy actually is and what happened on that fateful trip.

The heated debate has even spilled over into the public domain via Twitter.

“The paper didn’t alter course cuz of ‘public pressure,’” NYT reporter John Eligon, who covers race relations tweeted. “Legit concerns were raised by Black employees who worked alongside Don. It’s disheartening that a colleague I’ve worked with & respected would tweet this & speaks to how isolating it is to be Black at a mainstream news org.”

Eligon posted that tweet in response to another colleague’s tweet seemingly questioning McNeil’s ouster. That reporter, Michael Powell, had tweeted a statement by the head of writer advocacy group PEN America.

“For reporter Donald McNeil Jr. to end his long career as a result of a single word, risks sending a chilling message,” PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel said in a statement on her Web site.

“You often wonder what your white colleagues who are lovely to your face are actually thinking or saying about you — or people like you — behind your back,” Eligon said.  

According to McNeil, he used the N-word after a student on a Times-sponsored educational cruise to Peru had asked him “whether I thought a classmate of hers should have been suspended for a video she had made as a 12-year-old in which she used” the N-word.

McNeil then repeated the N-word as he tried to determine the context of the original use by the classmate.

The school involved was not disclosed. And what exactly was said remains a mystery.

“To be clear, I’ve never argued for Don to be fired–nor have many of my colleagues who raised concerns about this. I’ve argued for full transparency,” Eligon said in a follow-up tweet. “It is impossible to judge the situation without knowing all that was said. Sadly, we haven’t got that transparency.”

But according to the Daily Beast, which broke the story that led to the ouster, parents and students complained about McNeil’s comments generally.

“Not only did Donald say various racist comments on numerous occasions, but he was also disrespectful to many students during mealtimes and in other settings,” said one parent in a review.

“I would change the journalist. He was a racist,” another person wrote. “He used the ‘N’ word, said horrible things about black teenagers, and said white supremacy doesn’t exist.”

The Washington Free Beacon, meanwhile, pointed out that The Times’ recently used the N-word in its own reporting on Princeton classics professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta. And Pulitzer Prize-winning colleague Nikole Hannah-Jones, the reporter behind the controversial 1619 Project, has recently used it in tweets, potentially undermining its own policy.

When Washington Free Beacon asked Hannah-Jones about the discrepancy, she reportedly tweeted out the reporter’s inquiry, including his cell phone number — in violation of the site’s terms of service. She appeared to have deleted the tweet late Monday.

It’s just the latest controversy for the Gray Lady. The same day that McNeil announced his resignation, Times audio producer Andy Mills, co-host of the discredited Caliphate podcast, also resigned. He said in a farewell on Facebook that it was a result of past boorish behavior at his previous job at WNYC program “Radiolab.” He said he had been reprimanded and apologized for the incidents eight years earlier.

The Times also recently let go a part-time editor Lauren Wolfe after she tweeted that watching Joe Biden’s plane land the day before his inauguration gave her “chills.” She’s since started a blog on the Substack platform called “Chills.”

  



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