Madness at the New York Times

Matthew Hoy
By Matthew Hoy on February 8, 2021

If you've heard nothing of the latest madness at what has long been the gold standard of journalism in this country, The New York Times, then I apologize for what follows. In a sane world, this wouldn't have happened in the first place. This is not that sane world.

Donald McNeil Jr.'s poor judgment call

On January 28, the Daily Beast published a story revealing that Donald McNeil Jr., The New York Times' top infectious diseases reporter who has made a name for himself most recently covering the COVID-19 pandemic, used the n-word while leading a Times-sponsored trip for high school students to Peru.

The following details are undisputed.

Apparently one of the students asked McNeil during a dinner conversation if he thought that a classmate should have been suspended for uttering the n-word in a video the classmate made when she was 12-years-old. The student didn't say "n-word," but used the slur. In an attempt to gather more information about the context in which the slur was used, McNeil asked if the student in question "was rapping or quoting a book title?" When he asked his question, he used the slur, just as the student had.

None of this was news to the Times management. In an article published the same day as a response to the original Daily Beast story, the official line from the Times management was that they had investigated at the time, he'd made a mistake, and he'd been disciplined.

“In 2019, Donald McNeil Jr. participated in a Student Journeys as an expert,” The Times said in the statement. “We subsequently became aware of complaints by some of the students on the trip concerning certain statements Donald had made during the trip.

“We conducted a thorough investigation and disciplined Donald for statements and language that had been inappropriate and inconsistent with our values,” the statement continued. “We found he had used bad judgment by repeating a racist slur in the context of a conversation about racist language. In addition, we apologized to the students who had participated in the trip.”

Though repeating the term the student used was definitely unwise, it shouldn't be a firing offense.

A few thoughts about the Daily Beast article

Reading the original Daily Beast article, including its headline ("Star NY Times Reporter Accused of Using ‘N-Word,’ Making Other Racist Comments"), one is left with the impression that McNeil called someone the N-word. As is clear from the Times' initial reporting, and McNeil's own account of the incident, this is not what we typically mean when we say that someone used a slur. While the headline promises "other racist comments," the story under-delivers.

Two students specifically alleged that the science reporter used the “n-word” and suggested he did not believe in the concept of white privilege; three other participants alleged that McNeil made racist comments and used stereotypes about Black teenagers.

Unfortunately, there is no detail on the stereotypes that McNeil allegedly used. And, while pooh-poohing the concept of white privilege is more common on the right side of the political spectrum, disagreeing with the left's conventional wisdom on the subject is not definitive evidence of racism.

It seems pretty clear that the original Daily Beast article was designed to evoke maximum outrage while providing minimal context. The goal was to get McNeil fired. The article serves no other purpose.

The woke mob comes for Donald McNeil Jr.

This did not satisfy the newly empowered woke mob at the Times. Just a few days later, 150 Times staff sent an "outraged" letter to management over their handling of the 2019 incident.

“We, his colleagues, feel disrespected by his actions,” the letter said. “The company has a responsibility to take that experience seriously.”

Coming from the same crowd that ousted opinion page editor James Bennet last year, this is not exactly a surprise. What is troubling is the new standard for what is a firing offense in the 21st century. Addressing Editor Dean Baquet's conclusion that it did not appear to him that McNeil's "intentions were hateful or malicious," the mob argued that intentions are don't matter.

But the company’s conclusion about McNeil’s intent was “irrelevant,” the irate staffers wrote in the letter, adding that the paper’s own harassment training “makes clear that what matters is how an act makes the victims feel; Mr. McNeil’s victims weren’t shy about decrying his conduct on the trip.”

So, on Friday, the Times' leadership caved and sacked McNeil.

The debate inside the Times newsroom

While 150 Times staff signed the letter demanding McNeil's head, that number is definitely a minority of the paper's newsroom.  A 2019 report puts the number of employees at the paper at approximately 4500. Certainly not all of those are in the newsroom, but I would guess the number of reporters, editors, photographers and other "editorial" employees at the paper is certainly more than 1,000.

A report from the Washington Free Beacon reveals that not everyone at the Times is OK with the way this controversy has been handled.

[Former Times reporter Steven] Greenhouse argued that the staffers who went after McNeil, including [Nikole] Hannah-Jones and race reporter John Eligon, had their priorities backwards. Many of them, he wrote in the Facebook group, were "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."

Make no mistake about the validity of Greenhouse's point and what it says about the elite left. These Times-sponsored trips with their reporters typically start at about $6,000 and can climb to nearly $8,000 depending on the location. Scholarships are available, but Greenhouse is certainly correct that vast majority of students on these trips are scions of the 1 percent.

Where and when does the new standard apply?

We've got a real problem as a society if we're going to start ending people's careers and subjecting them to public shaming regardless of the intent behind the offense. It's important to note that there is no one claiming that McNeil directed the slur at anyone. [Reason magazine's Matt Welch highlights this use-mention distinction and the danger of discarding it.] Critics of the latest live action role-playing performance of "Lord of the Flies" at the Times have pointed out if intent doesn't matter, then act two should be particularly exciting.

The Free Beacon's reporting also featured some problematic quotes from Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha. In attempting to defend the new intent-doesn't-matter-standard, Ha told the paper that racial epithets had no place "in the newspaper."

"Even in ironic or self-mocking quotations about a speaker’s own group (in rap lyrics, for example), their use erodes the worthy inhibition against brutality in public discourse," Danielle Rhoades Ha told the Free Beacon.

A search of the Times archive using the slur—not the "n-word," but the term itself—shows the paper has published 20 articles in the last year where the term appears, including one from just a week ago. Of course, if the intent matters, then every one of these uses can be easily defended. But, regardless, they have no place in the newspaper?

How about if we're talking about reporters' Twitter feeds?

If intent doesn't matter… then this would be problematic. Of course, the standards are different for Duranty-like Pulitzer Prize winners.

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