News and Commentary

New York Times Reporter Forced To Resign Over N-Word Controversy Tells His Side Of The Story
The New York Times Building is seen in New York City on February 4, 2021.
DANIEL SLIM/AFP via Getty Images

Earlier this month, Donald McNeil Jr., a veteran science reporter for The New York Times, resigned following the publication of allegations alleging he had said the “n-word” during a company-sponsored event in Peru two years earlier.

At the time, McNeil explained the situation: “On a 2019 New York Times trip to Peru for high school students, I was asked at dinner by a student 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 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. In asking the question, I used the slur itself. I should not have done that.”

Now, weeks after his resignation, and following internal controversies regarding his resignation, McNeil has written an article on Medium explaining what happened the day the allegations against him were made public. McNeil said he had received an email from Daily Beast reporter Lachlan Cartwright, who provided a list of detailed allegations against him and gave him less than four hours to respond before publication. McNeil said he was working on a story at the time and missed the email, but his boss, Times Science editor Celia Dugger, came by and asked him if he had seen the email, to which McNeil responded he hadn’t. Dugger, according to McNeil, insisted “we have to answer them today,” and he was referred to Associate Managing Editor for Employee Relations Charlotte Behrendt.

Behrendt, McNeil wrote, had been in charge of the investigation into the allegations against him back in 2019, “so she knew more of the facts than almost anyone else at the Times did.” She had also been friendly to him the last time they spoke, which was before the pandemic.

“From the very beginning, I misread the situation. I was blasé about the Beast email. The Times was in full freakout message-control mode,” McNeil wrote. “Charlotte instructed me to say nothing in reply, to not take any reporters’ phone calls, to just let Corporate Communications handle it.”

McNeil told Behrendt that he wouldn’t respond himself and reminded her: “You’ve heard all this before. You know it’s mostly bullshit. Just ignore them. Or tell them to hold the article until I can respond point by point.”

Behrendt, however, told McNeil that the story could get connected to the Times’ other recent scandals: The firing of Lauren Wolfe and the admission that its Peabody Prize-winning audio series was based on a fabulist.

McNeil asked Behrendt: “What in the world do I have to do with Caliphate?”

He was told he needed to apologize. He maintained he hadn’t done most of the things he was accused of but was reminded that he said the “N-word.” McNeil agreed to apologize and said he would explain the context and deny the rest, so he wrote a lengthy statement addressing each of the allegations against him:

  1. Yes, I did use the word, in this context: A student asked me if I thought her high school’s administration was right to suspend a classmate of hers for using the word in a video she’d made in eighth grade. I said “Did she actually call someone a “(offending word”? Or was she singing a rap song or quoting a book title or something?” When the student explained that it was the student, who was white and Jewish, sitting with a black friend and the two were jokingly insulting each other by calling each other offensive names for a black person and a Jew, I said “She was suspended for that? Two years later? No, I don’t think suspension was warranted. Somebody should have talked to her, but any school administrator should know that 12-year-olds say dumb things. It’s part of growing up.”
  2. I was never asked if I believed in white privilege. As someone who lived in South Africa in the 1990’s and has reported in Africa almost every year since, I have a clearer idea than most Americans of white privilege. I was asked if I believed in systemic racism. I answered words to the effect of: “Yeah, of course, but tell me which system we’re talking about. The U.S. military? The L.A.P.D.? The New York Times? They’re all different.”
  3. The question about blackface was part of a discussion of cultural appropriation. The students felt that it was never, ever appropriate for any white person to adopt anything from another culture — not clothes, not music, not anything. I counter-argued that all cultures grow by adopting from others. I gave examples — gunpowder and paper. I said I was a San Franciscan, and we invented blue jeans. Did that mean they — East Coast private school students — couldn’t wear blue jeans? I said we were in Peru, and the tomato came from Peru. Did that mean that Italians had to stop using tomatoes? That they had to stop eating pizza? Then one of the students said: “Does that mean that blackface is OK?” I said “No, not normally — but is it OK for black people to wear blackface?” “The student, sounding outraged, said “Black people don’t wear blackface!” I said “In South Africa, they absolutely do. The so-called colored people in Cape Town have a festival every year called the Coon Carnival* where they wear blackface, play Dixieland music and wear striped jackets. It started when a minstrel show came to South Africa in the early 1900’s. Americans who visit South Africa tell them they’re offended they shouldn’t do it, and they answer ‘Buzz off. This is our culture now. Don’t come here from America and tell us what to do.’ So what do you say to them? Is it up to you, a white American, to tell black South Africans what is and isn’t their culture?”

McNeil said he agreed to apologize for any offense he actually committed, “but not to agree to the Beast’s characterization of me, which I felt made me sound like a drunken racist roaring around Peru insulting everyone in sight.”

McNeil suggests that if “the Times had not panicked and I had been allowed to send some version of that, perhaps the Beast would have rewritten or even spiked its story.”

McNeil’s explanations were rejected and he was told to say: “My comments were offensive and I should not have made them, and I apologize.”

He refused, believing the statement would look like he was admitting to the Beast’s false portrayal of him. Just minutes before the deadline, Dugger suggested sending the following comment to the Beast:

Following the investigation, he recognized and regretted that some of his comments had offended students on the tour, including his repeating a racist slur in the context of discussing with the students an incident in which the use of that slur had been the central issue.

McNeil again refused, saying “if I didn’t commit the sin, I won’t ask for forgiveness.”

McNeil then sent an email to Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet detailed the exchange and asking for someone other than Behrendt to be in charge of further discipline, since she now presented a conflict of interest. Baquet responded an hour-and-a-half later, writing:

But Donald it was dumb and whether you meant it to be that way or not it was insensitive.

An hour after the Beast’s proposed deadline, Danielle Rhoades-Ha, from the Times’ communications department, sent the article to McNeil. McNeil said he wouldn’t respond and that “Anyone who knows me isn’t going to believe this.”

McNeil ignored phone calls, messages, and emails asking about the incident, but replied to the Washington Post by saying: “Don’t believe everything you read.” The Post, apparently, somehow took the comment to mean they shouldn’t believe the Times’ press release.

McNeil was told not to reply anymore and cautioned that this statement to the Post could cause students on the Peru trip to “start sharing their stories on social media,” resulting in “days for coverage.”

McNeil said he didn’t take the situation seriously enough, since, in his mind, he was “still a relatively obscure science reporter covering diseases no one else is interested in, and that Peru trip had been just one distant week in a long career.” He realized how serious the situation was the next day, following a Vanity Fair article:

Top management had met by Zoom with black reporters. There were department-by-department Zoom meetings about it. Slack channels were aflame, which I didn’t know because I avoid Slack unless I’m forced to use it. The Guild held an emergency meeting of its unit council. I was on the council, but I don’t know if I was invited since those messages go to a non-Times email I sometimes forget to check for days.

Word that “McNeil refused to apologize” had spread.

My reply to the Washington Post had angered management.

That Friday, Dugger and Baquet contacted McNeil and Baquet again urged him to apologize. McNeil’s ex-wife, who works at the Times, also informed him that his job – and possibly Baquet’s – was in danger. He said he and others struggled with wording the statement for six hours, continuing to object to any statement that “sounded like groveling and implied that the Beast story was largely accurate.” Exhausted at 9 p.m., he agreed to the last proposed wording. The next morning, he was told the statement “needs to more comprehensive in responding to the issues raised in the Daily Beast article.”

A new paragraph was drafted and sent to editors but wasn’t answered all weekend. McNeil sent a lengthy email to “1619 Project” creator Nikole Hannah-Jones, who was apparently looking into the Peru trip that caused McNeil’s troubles. Hannah-Jones didn’t respond that day.

McNeil was called by Baquet and Deputy Managing Editor Carolyn Ryan on February 1 at about 10:30 a.m. Baquet told McNeil that they were going to continue advocating for his Pulitzer Prize relating to his work on the coronavirus pandemic, but noted that he’d “lost the newsroom.”

“People are hurt. People are saying they won’t work with you because you didn’t apologize,” Baquet said, according to McNeil.

McNeil replied that he had written an apology and had sent it to Baquet days earlier. Baquet didn’t respond, but Ryan said she had seen it. Baquet again told McNeil he had lost the newsroom and that other reporters wouldn’t work with him.

Baquet then suggested he add that he was resigning.

“WHAT?” McNeil replied. “ARE YOU KIDDING? You want me to leave after 40-plus years? Over this? You know this is bullshit. You know you looked into it and I didn’t do the things they said I did, I wasn’t some crazy racist, I was just answering the kids’ questions.”

Baquet again mentioned that McNeil had lost the newsroom and that people wouldn’t work with him, to which McNeil asked: “Since when do we get to choose who we work with?”

Ryan claimed more accusations had come in against McNeil, and he demanded to know who made them and of what he was being accused. Neither Baquet nor Ryan responded. McNeil said he felt the new allegations were “an attempt to intimidate me”:

“Let me give you an alternative view of who’s ‘lost the newsroom,’” I said. “I’ve been getting emails and calls from bureaus all over the world saying, “Hang in there, you’re getting screwed.” People are outraged at how I’m being trashed in the press and by the Times. If you fire me over this, you’re going to lose everybody over age 40 at the paper, all the grownups. All your bureau chiefs, all your Washington reporters, all your Pulitzer winners. Especially once they realize how innocuous what I really said was and that you didn’t find it a firing offense in 2019. And they’ll talk to every media columnist in town. The right wing will have a field day.”

Baquet told McNeil he wasn’t being fired, merely asked to “consider resigning.”

McNeil responded that they were “twisting my arm,” which they denied.

McNeil said he should get a lawyer, and neither responded.

After the call, McNeil started looking for a lawyer and spoke to friends who knew about similar situations, who told him that because he was punished for the Peru trip in 2019, he couldn’t be punished again, since protections against “double jeopardy” are included in union contracts.

McNeil said he worried that he would be transferred to a “dead-end job” with the hope that he would be made miserable and quit, even with the union protection.

McNeil retained an attorney and told Dugger. Dugger informed him that “they” told her that if he refused to resign, the Times would remove him as lead pandemic reporter and take away his “big front-page stories” and “appearances on The Daily.”

McNeil learned through the Times union that higher ups asked for anyone who “had a problem with Donald” to contact them, which McNeil said could be seen as due diligence or as a fishing expedition.

The next evening, McNeil sent Baquet another email, explaining that he had obtained counsel but that he still considered Baquet a friend and asked him to meet for a beer when it was all over. Baquet replied: “Of course my friend. I understand.”

Four days later, after more urging from the Times, McNeil finally said he would resign. The Times sent McNeil a draft announcement, which read:

We are writing to let you know that Donald McNeil Jr. will be leaving the company. Donald joined The Times in 1976 and has done much good reporting over four decades. But Donald agrees that this is the right next step.

We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.

McNeil said he had asked them to remove “But Donald agrees that…” The final announcement said, “But we feel that…”

Days after McNeil’s forced resignation, Baquet walked back the statement about intent, saying “of course intent matters.” This came after people noted that Hannah-Jones had also used the “n-word” but was still employed by the paper.

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