After recounting some of her history at the storied newspaper, Abramson addresses Donald McNeil Jr.'s recent firing, and last year's sacking of opinion page editor James Bennet:
Because of Mr. McNeil’s resignation, readers are being denied his vital reporting on COVID-19 at a very inopportune moment. Were they impacted by whatever he said to a group of kids on a trip in 2019? I think not. Did Mr. McNeil’s utterance of a racial slur word with no intent to harm anyone hurt readers? Again, I think the answer is no, although as someone who teaches college students I would never say this word myself.
Sure, one can question McNeil’s judgment on the trip, but that has almost nothing to do with whether he has upheld his first duty as a professional journalist: to bring the public vital information and hold power accountable. As someone who knows Mr. McNeil, I can say with authority that he has always performed this first duty of a journalist with distinction.
The same was true of James Bennet, a great journalist.
Ultimately, this should be one of the foremost considerations when considering whether someone is doing their job as a journalist. You can't ignore abhorrent treatment of co-workers or any of the other things that can open your business to lawsuits alleging a hostile work environment or worse.
A longer piece on the controversy over the weekend in the Times itself by media reporter Ben Smith points out that McNeil was the kind of irascible newspaper man that you might have seen portrayed by Robert Duvall in "The Paper" or Ed Asner on TV's "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" (though the latter is TV news, not print).
Mr. McNeil is known as a difficult character at the paper, a detail that is both irrelevant to the big ideological questions and important to understanding what had happened. A kind of Times-made man who was married for a time to a third-generation Times woman, he started at the newspaper in 1976. He had risen through the ranks from copy boy to become a night rewrite man, a theater columnist and a correspondent in Paris.
His impolitic views were also hardly a secret. When he published a book on the Zika virus in 2016, a puzzled reviewer in The Quarterly Review of Biology noted passages about feminists and gay sex, and wrote that “it is McNeil’s seniority and journalistic experience that makes the occasional misstep, or indelicate deviation from the science, all the more surprising.”
It's not uncommon for businesses to do a cost-benefit analysis in such situations when deciding whether to continue someone's employment. Does the fact that someone is a prickly pain in the ass outweigh their Pulitzer-worthy reporting? (Smith's story indicates that two of McNeil's articles were part of the Times Pulitzer submission for its COVID-19 coverage.)
Abramson's defense of the Times ultimately comes down to this:
I ask all of you to consider this: Is there any news report that equals the Times in excellence? Do all the people involved in these controversies try their best to fulfill journalism’s duty to readers?
The answers to these questions from someone who's been critiquing the media publicly for the better part of two decades is: Depending on the subject: Yes; and, based on this situation: No.
If readers wanted information on Hunter Biden's abandoned laptop and the leveraging of his relationship to his father for cash from foreign governments, they weren't getting it from the Times. If McNeil is the reporter you've advertised him to be the past year and possesses a unique understanding of how pandemics spread, has sources he's cultivated over decades of reporting, and can explain it in such a way that makes it easier for readers to comprehend, then firing him does not fulfill journalism's duty to readers.
Smith's piece also asks a question that the higher-ups need to come forward and answer publicly:
The questions about The Times’s identity and political leanings are real; the differences inside the newsroom won’t be easily resolved. But the paper needs to figure out how to resolve these issues more clearly: Is The Times the leading newspaper for like-minded, left-leaning Americans? Or is it trying to hold what seems to be a disappearing center in a deeply divided country? Is it Elizabeth Warren or Joe Biden? One thing that’s clear is that these questions probably aren’t best arbitrated through firings or resignations freighted with symbolic meaning, or hashed out inside the human resources department.
Set aside for a moment the fact that while the media largely covered Biden as a moderate, generic Democrat, his first few weeks in office have shown him to be little different than Warren. More than 16 years ago, then public editor Daniel Okrent admitted that the Times was a liberal newspaper. The question isn't whether the Times will be a newspaper for the political middle, the question is whether the Times is going to go full-woke left? Will its news reporting still recognize that there are views on the right side of the political spectrum that aren't immediately worth canceling? Will it cover the abuses of public officials with equal vigor regardless of whether they have a (D) or (R) after their names? Does the truth matter to the Times?
As time goes on, abandonment of standard journalistic principles, fairness, and honesty, all in an effort to embrace "woke" dogma will pervade the paper, causing it to lose that "excellence" that Abramson touts. (For an example, check out this critique of an article that's been nearly a year in the making on Silicon Valley blog Slate Star Codex.)
It appears from recent personnel decisions (in government, they typically note that "personnel is policy"), that Smith's question has been answered. The Times is a newspaper for like-minded, left-leaning Americans. They just haven't formally announced the decision yet.