This sad story is cobbled together from two stories at the Washington Post (here and here), two at The Daily Beast (here and here), and then one at the New York Times itself. This is getting to be a familiar tale: someone at the New York Times commits an act seen as “hate speech”, and that person is giving a stern talking-to but not let go. Then the Times staffers, a bunch of entitled, privileged, and easily offended members of the Outrage Brigade, protest that only firing will slake their thirst for blood. The editors then decide to fire the “hater”.
That is what happened to op-ed editor James Bennet, who (horrors!) published an op-ed by Republican Senator Tom Cotton, and had to leave the paper. And it’s just happened to science writer Donald G. McNeil, Jr., a prize-winning science reporter, known for his coverage of the AIDS and Covid-19 epidemics, who’s been with the Times for 45 years. The episode reflects very badly on the paper, and in fact has got me quite depressed. During all the time I’ve been criticizing the NYT for wokeness, I hoped that it would turn around and get back to the admirable organ it once was. Perhaps, I thought, it didn’t need to be so woke once Biden was elected. But now I see that I was wrong. Wokeness is here to say, both at the NYT and in America, and the major liberal media have become hopeless. I see no abating of the authoritarianism of the Left.
Here’s a precis of the events that led to McNeil’s firing.
A. McNeil took a group of 26 students to Peru in 2019 as part of a regular program in which students pay $5,500 to get an educational experience with a Times reporter.
B. On that trip, McNeil committed the firing offense, using the n-word. The context: McNeil “had used bad judgment by repeating a racist slur in the context of a conversation about racist remarks.” Apparently the student had said the word first, and McNeil repeated it, but not using it as a slur or in a racist way.
The students complained about this to the travel company and then to the Times, also noting that McNeil had made other offensive claims. These include an assertion that he “did not believe in the concept of white privilege” (!). Finally, there are unspecified complaints that McNeil “used stereotypes about Black teenagers,” though there’s no report of exactly what he said.
C. The complaints reached the ears of Times editors, including executive editor Dean Baquet. They launched an investigation and found that while McNeil had overstepped his bounds, his offense was not a firing one because his remarks were not hateful or malicious. As the Daily Beast reports (emphases henceforth are mine):
A Times spokesperson told The Daily Beast on Thursday, “In 2019, Donald McNeil, Jr. participated in a Student Journeys as an expert. 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. 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.”
Times executive editor Dean Baquet addressed the controversy in an email to the newsroom Thursday night, saying that when he first heard about McNeil’s remarks, he was “outraged” and expected to fire him.
“I authorized an investigation and concluded his remarks were offensive and that he showed extremely poor judgment, but it did not appear to me that that his intentions were hateful or malicious,” he wrote.
Baquet went on to acknowledge criticism that the Times has been “too tolerant in disciplining high-profile journalists” and said he welcomed having that conversation. “Fair treatment has to be the foundation of the diverse and equitable newsroom we are building,” he wrote.
Baquet is a African-American.
D. McNeil tendered a fulsome apology. This was probably part of the sanctions that the paper imposed on him
As Andrew Sullivan said in a tweet, “This reads like a confession procured by the Khmer Rouge. It’s both ridiculous and terrifying.”
E. In the meantime, the investigation reached the ears of Times staffers, the public-relations department, and publisher A.G. Sulzberger. There was also a meeting with black staffers, including Nikole Hannah-Jones of the 1619 Project. The final blow: 150 staffers wrote to Baquet and other top officers of the paper. Their plaint was that the discipline meted out to McNeil wasn’t nearly harsh enough, and that they were in “pain”. And Baquet’s conclusion that McNeil didn’t utter the n-word with malicious intent was irrelevant. From The Daily Beast:
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 what matters is how an act makes the victims feel; Mr. Mcneil’s victims weren’t shy about decrying his conduct on the trip.”
I think the paper needs better harassment training.
Signees called on the paper to study how racial biases affect pitches, editing, and sourcing, and reiterated a commitment to the paper’s existing non-discrimination and anti-harassment policies.
The letter also called on the Times to reinvestigate the 2019 trip as well as “any newly surfaced complaints,” noting that in the days since The Daily Beast’s article, current and former staffers have also said that McNeil had shown “bias against people of color in his work and in interactions with colleagues over a period of years.”
These other accusations apparently had not been reported before, and I suspected were recalled post facto. At any rate, what got McNeil fired was clearly his use of the n-word [JAC: see below; John McWhorter agrees]. The Beast report continues:
“Our community is outraged and in pain,” the signees wrote. “Despite The Times’s seeming commitment to diversity and inclusion, we have given a prominent platform—a critical beat covering a pandemic disproportionately affecting people of color—to someone who chose to use language that is offensive and unacceptable by any newsroom’s standards. He did so while acting as a representative for The Times, in front of high school students.”
F. Apparently the editora “rethought” his sanctions after the letter from the staffers and the meeting, and fired McNeil. Here’s their announcement:
Apparently the n-word had now become a firing offense regardless of intent. That means, of course, that those who use it didactically, as McNeil may have done, have committed an unforgivable offense, because the simple sound of the word, no matter how it is used or what intent was behind its use, is sufficient to get you dumped, and put a 45-year career into the toilet.
The whole affair stinks, and reflects badly on the paper’s staffers and executives. To my mind the initial discipline, whatever it was, was sufficient: McNeil was kept on the paper and forced to apologize, as cringe-worthy as that apology was. Since he didn’t mean what he said in a hateful way, and wasn’t trying to be racist (for crying out loud, many of us question the idea of “white privilege”!), it wasn’t as if he had donned a white robe or burned a cross. Remember, McNeil had served the paper well for 45 years. All he needed was a strong lesson about how to behave in the company of impressionable teenagers (and NYT staffers!).
This clearly shows that the paper is ruled by the mob, the mob being the oh-so-easily hurt NYT staffers who had no patience with McNeil staying on. After all, his mere presence in the building could be seen as dangerous and harmful! (They said the same thing about James Bennet and about Bari Weiss, who left the paper after being declared persona non grata by the staffers.)
But in what world should intent not matter? If someone reads a passage of Huckleberry Finn containing the n-word to her students, is that really as bad an offense as screaming the word in hatred to a group of black people? And why should people be just as hurt by the former as by the latter? That’s not right! We should not accept the contention that one’s intent is irrelevant in judging one’s language, particularly when people these days are histrionic, often pretending to be more offended than they really are. After all, the more offended you act, the more goodies you get and the more power you can wield.
The New York Times has now become terminally woke, with its staffers constituting a Star Chamber about what language can and cannot be used by other staffers. And the editors are apparently so fearful of the staff that they’ll bow to their wishes, whatever they may be. Those editors are not leaders, but craven followers. The paper just gets worse and worse, and woker and woker.
After I wrote the above, I got an email from John McWhorter’s new Substack site noting that he had just written a short piece about this debacle. Click on the screenshot to read it, as it’s free (but consider subscribing):
As usual, McWhorter is far more eloquent than I in analyzing this episode. First, he uses his expertise as a linguist:
That is, for people like this [the staffers], the N-word has gone from being a slur to having, in its mere shape and sound, a totemic taboo status directly akin to how Harry Potter characters process the name Voldemort and theatre people maintain a pox on saying “Macbeth” inside a theatre. The letter roasts McNeil for “us[ing] language that is offensive and unacceptable,” implying a string of language, a whole point or series thereof, something like a stream, a stretch – “language.” But no: they are referring to his referring to a single word.
The kinds of people who got McNeil fired think of this new obsessive policing of the N-word as a kind of strength. Their idea is “We are offended by this word, we demand that you don’t use it, and if you do use it, we are going to make sure you lose your job.” But the analogy is off here. This would be strength if the issue were the vote, or employment. Here, people are demanding the right to exhibit performative delicacy, and being abetted in it by non-black fellow travellers.
After remembering that several decades ago the n-word wasn’t seen as always taboo, with people able to differentiate betweens its didactic versus offensive use, McWhorter says this:
Even Times executive editor Dean Baquet understands this, one can tell. He at first retained McNeil after an apology, but has now caved to this body of ever-aggrieved Times workers. I guess after they managed to hunt out James Bennett, Bari Weiss and now McNeil, Baquet worries that he might be next. Or maybe it’s a matter of racial loyalty to him – it is not mine to know.
Finally, McWhorter reaches a few conclusions that only a black person would be able to say in public:
Upon that, two matters require address. One is that it is only a certain mob who are making this “determination.” The idea that it is inherent to black American culture to fly to pieces at hearing the N-word used in reference is implausible at best, and slanderous at worst.
But the second and more important is that insisting on this taboo makes it look like black people are numb to the difference between usage and reference, vague on the notion of meta, given to overgeneralization rather than to making distinctions.
To wit, the get McNeil fired for using the N-word to refer to it makes black people look dumb. And not just to the Twitter trollers who will be nasty enough to actually write it down. Non-black people are thinking it nationwide and keeping it to themselves. Frankly, the illogic in this approach to the N-word is so obvious to anyone who does make distinctions that the only question is why people would not look on and guiltily wonder whether the idea that black people are less intellectually gifted is true.
. . .The reason a black person engages in this kind of inquisition is not ill-will, and it isn’t stupidity. It’s insecurity. Slavery and Jim Crow have many legacies, and one is on black psychology. People who really like themselves can’t be destroyed by someone referring to a word, even a word that has been used against them.
. . . It’s pretty simple – if you are genuinely proud, then you spontaneously recoil from the idea that some stuff somebody says in passing can hurt you. You’d be embarrassed to engage in the transaction. If you really like yourself, it takes a hell of a lot more than some cranky stuff a Donald McNeil says one day to ruin your day, or even affect it in the slightest.
The only problem with McWhorter’s analysis is that it’s not just African-Americans who signed that letter to the editors. It’s not just black people who continue to enforce this taboo. He leaves out that a lot of this faux offense comes from whites—who sometimes object even more vociferously than do blacks. And that’s because whites have an additional fear: if you don’t go along, you can be called a racist. And that, too, is a kind of insecurity.