Another day, some more madness regarding The New York Times' recent firing of their star COVID-19 reporter Donald McNeil Jr. If you haven't read the previous post regarding this issue, then please do so now before continuing.
Today's Washington Post has an article on the controversy by media critic Eric Wemple. The article helpfully contains some more context for McNeil's interactions with the students on that 2019 Peru trip.
- Students largely confirmed in broad outlines McNeil’s account of the n-word fiasco. But they said that he uttered the epithet in a way that they perceived as casual, unnecessary or even gratuitous.
- In a discussion of cultural appropriation, McNeil scoffed. Though the term applies to people in Western countries adopting fashions or other items from other cultures, McNeil offered the example of people all over the world eating imported Italian tomatoes, according to a student in attendance. What’s the problem with that?
- Two students reported coming away with troubling impressions of McNeil’s view of white supremacy, with one of them claiming that he said it didn’t exist.
- Speaking about high incarceration rates of African Americans, McNeil argued that if they engage in criminal activity, that’s on them, and not on an oppressive and racist power structure, recalls a trip participant who said that the comments were “triggering” to the group. The participant, however, said that McNeil’s opinions didn’t disparage African Americans.
In other words, McNeil espoused similar views to at least 40% of the U.S. population. I doubt that McNeil was a covert right-wing mole in leveraging his reporting gig into an effort to go on a field trip with a bunch of one percenters and poison their minds against their bourgeoisie liberal upbringing. But if you ever wondered if someone holding rather mainstream conservative views openly could hold a job at the Times, then you have your answer.
An update on the previous post where I put the cost at these Times-sponsored trips for youths at $6,000 to $8,000. I did not not read the terms and conditions as closely as I should have. That listed price does not include air travel. So, you can add another couple of thousand dollars onto most of the trip costs for most of these students. Scholarships or not, this is not the sort of trip that your average high school student is taking.
I'm not one to agree with liberal author Jonathan Chait very often, but he has a good piece on McNeil's defenestration here.
I discussed this story in broad terms with my wife, the English teacher, and wondered: "What does this mean for English teachers?" Not immediately, but in five or 10 years when colleges have turned out more and more people who have been taught this standard that intent or context no longer matters.
Teachers periodically face this issue even now. They teach "Huckleberry Finn," by Mark Twain. "To Kill a Mockingbird," by Harper Lee. "Their Eyes Were Watching God," by Zora Neale Hurston. And from time to time a parent will complain—and these are parents of all races—about these books which contain the N-word. The new paradigm certainly can't mean that we start whitewashing (pun not intended, but not unwelcome) literature and history and so that our children don't understand the past. George Orwell's "1984" wasn't supposed to be a how-to manual.
From Chait's article:
What’s even more troublesome is when authorities decide to apply the new norm retroactively. I know of a teacher who lost her job when a video surfaced on social media showing her reading the word to her class. She was reading from a well-regarded book written by a Black author about Jim Crow–era racism. The video was a decade old. And yet, when it came out last summer, when student activists in the wake of the George Floyd murder were looking to bring change to their immediate surroundings, she became the proximate target.
This is madness. If a teacher can't read from a text because it contains the N-word, then what is next. As I mentioned in my last post, there's a difference between "using" the term and "referring" to the term. I would hope there is something more to Chait's story about the teacher he knows, but I fear there is not.
At the end of my post yesterday, I posted a couple of screenshots illustrating the double-standard that really isn't a standard of the Times' Nikole Hannah-Jones use of the N-word and a variant of the standard N-word. If intent no longer matters, then these Tweets were … let's say … problematic.
One detail I didn't mention was that Hannah-Jones had also posted the cell phone number of Washington Free Beacon reporter Aaron Sibarium after he'd asked her for comment on her reported part in the firing of McNeil. This is what's known colloquially as "doxing" and is prohibited by Twitter's terms of service.
Here's the thing. It is standard journalistic practice to ask someone who is a part of a story you're writing if they wish to comment. This is something you learn in Reporting 101 at every college in the nation. Hannah-Jones knows this. McNeil's ouster wasn't the first time that she'd been part of a news story, rather than a writer. And her response was to dismissively ignore the request and dox the reporter?! It should be a firing offense, but the inmates are running the asylum.
Also today, Hannah-Jones deleted her entire Twitter history. She claims she does this periodically and there's nothing nefarious about it coming shortly after she'd doxed an annoying reporter. If you're skeptical that her claims that there's nothing ass-covering related to the deletion, then welcome to the club.
Interestingly, this is somewhat related to something they sometimes advised people to do in J-school. You should periodically throw out all your old reporter's notebooks because if there's ever a lawsuit, lawyers will want to go through everything you have. So, toss out your old notebooks once a year, or every six months, unless you want the snarky comments you made in the margins coming back to bite you.
Of course, the flip side on that was: don't start doing that purge immediately after you've been told that there may be a lawsuit coming. If you can demonstrate you've getting rid of the notebooks every six months for several years, you're likely safe from charges of attempting to destroy evidence in a civil case. If you do it immediately after effluent has hit the rotating wind-making machine, then you've got more serious problems.
Where does Hannah-Jones' behavior fall under the aforementioned cases? It certainly would appear to be the latter case. When I searched her feed last night, posts went back at least four years. It's not something she was regularly doing…until earlier today.