Short take: “Meltdown” at the New York Times

February 10, 2021 • 10:30 am

As I have some serious writing to do today, I’ll put up only a few short items which you can consult for yourself.

The first comes from a right-wing site, the Washington Free Beacon, but I have no reason to doubt the reporting. (Besides, left-wing sites aren’t keen to report bad behavior at the New York Times.) What happened is that a schism has occurred in the New York Times newsroom after the firing of long-time science reporter Donald McNeil, Jr.  Somehow the Beacon got hold of a transcript of an online discussion among Times staffers, and it seems that they’re not unified in damning McNeil. There’s a clear dichotomy between those who wanted McNeil fired (the woke) and those who ask for forgiveness for what, after all, was not a reprehensible and unforgivable act (the reasonable staff). What McNeil did was utter the “n-word”—not as a racial slur but in the following context:

McNeil’s ouster came nearly two years after the incident that precipitated it. While chaperoning high school students on a pricey trip to Peru, the science reporter responded to a question from a student about whether one of her classmates should have been suspended for using the n-word. In the process, he [McNeil] uttered the offending syllables himself. An internal Times investigation found his judgment wanting but stopped short of firing him.

Only after the Daily Beast published an account of the incident, thrusting it into the public realm for the first time, was McNeil pushed out. “We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent,” Dean Baquet, the paper’s executive editor, told staff in an email.

McNeil’s resignation on Friday—and Baquet’s post hoc explanation that intent doesn’t matter—renewed the bitter debate among staff, with reporters warring with each other in public and private.

You can read about this tempest by clicking on the screenshot:

There are a few juicy tidbits in the NYT debate; I recount them with some Schadenfreude but also to show you that there are some decent folks still on the staff, even if the paper’s editors, including executive editor Dean Baquet, are craven invertebrates, lacking self-respect and truckling to the staff and the social-media mobs.

“What ever happened to the notion of worker solidarity … to giving a fellow worker the benefit of the doubt,” asked Steven Greenhouse, who spent three decades covering labor issues for the Times. “And why didn’t the NewsGuild do far more to defend and protect the job of a long-time Times employee, one who at times did tireless, heroic work on behalf of the Guild to help improve pay and conditions for all NYT employees?” McNeil had excoriated management’s attempts to freeze pension plans in 2012, calling those involved “belligerent idiots.”

Times crossword columnist Deb Amlen accused Greenhouse of an excessive focus on the “perpetrator,” arguing that he and others should shift their attention to the people McNeil had “harmed.”

“Why is it that the focus in discussions like this almost always [is] on ruining the perpetrator’s life, and not those who were harmed by [his actions],” she asked. Reached for comment, Amlen told the Free Beacon this is a “private group” and that she would “appreciate it if you do not use anything I said or wrote.”

Despite Deb Amlen’s claim, I would deny that McNeil “harmed” anyone. Offended, maybe—though surely a lot of the “offense” among the 150 Times staffers who called for McNeil’s head was exaggerated—but nobody was harmed. “Harm” is the histrionic synonym for “offended” that the woke use to make themselves look like victims as well as to leverage power.

And remember the contention of the staffers, later adopted by the NYT editors, that “intent doesn’t matter” when you use a word like the n-word?

Times spokeswoman muddied the waters further on Sunday, telling the Free Beacon that racial epithets had no place “in the newspaper.” The paper printed the same epithet as recently as last week in a magazine profile of the Princeton classics professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta.

“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. She declined to say if that policy extends to social media, where other New York Times writers, including Nikole Hannah-Jones and Astead Herndon, have quoted the slur.

Baquet’s statement in particular came in for scathing criticism in the Facebook discussion. “‘We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent’ might be the most racist statement I’ve ever read,” said Lawrence De Maria, an award-winning crime and finance reporter. “It demeans ALL races.”

It is also untrue: “Larry Wilmore did not say, ‘You did it, my nigger,’” Hannah-Jones wrote in 2016, referencing the black comedian’s routine at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. There is a “linguistic difference b/w nigger and nigga.”

Then Hannah-Jones did something that nobody, much less journalists, should do:

The Washington Free Beacon asked Hannah-Jones whether intent made a difference in her case. She responded by posting this reporter’s inquiry, including his cell phone number, on Twitter, in direct violation of the website’s terms of service.

What was Hannah-Jones thinking? But I’ve always seen her as a nasty piece of work, thin-skinned and unable to accept criticism.

Truly, this is just one of several incidents (including the bullying of Bari Weiss and the dumping of op-ed editor James Bennet) that makes the New York Times look like a bunch of elementary-school kids fighting at the playground and tattling on each other. Does the paper, at long last, have no pride at all in its reputation? Will Dean Baquet step up and start leading the paper out of the mucky hinterlands it’s entered? I’d hope so, but don’t expect so.

Final remarks by two NYT staffers:

The lack of clear standards has generated frustration internally. “I don’t think anybody feels like we have any clarity about what happened with that incident or other alleged incidents,” one New York Times reporter told the Free Beacon. “[W]e demand transparency of other people, and we don’t have it in our own processes.”

It has also raised questions about who really edits the paper: Baquet or the radicals who work for him. “Dean and AG [Sulzberger] make a decision, and then are bullied by a vocal minority into changing their minds,” Times contributor Robert Worth said in the Facebook group. “This is not the NYT I know.”

I expect that Robert Worth will soon find himself looking for a new job.

In the meantime, PEN America has had the backbone to criticize the paper for how it handled McNeil:

Part of a statement from PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel:

For reporter Donald McNeil to end his long career, apparently as a result of a single word, risks sending a chilling message. That the paper apparently altered its course in relation to this incident as a result of public pressure is a further worrying signal. The Times‘ readers depend upon its journalists and editors to be able to carry out their work without fear that a lone errant statement may cost them their job.”

29 thoughts on “Short take: “Meltdown” at the New York Times

  1. An ugly, necessary battle in a struggle between a great oppression and a small band of heroes, who perceive the coming of a glorious future, if they believe in it hard enough.

    Sound familiar?

  2. Spoilt toddlers throwing tantrums and justifying the harm they do with self-serving sophistry (and the harm they’re doing is actual, not imagined like the harm they claim to be experiencing). At some point this must stop, simply because it will become impossible for the paper to function while spending so much of its energy on this unproductive nonsense.

  3. “Nikole Hannah-Jones Scrubs Social Media After Doxxing Free Beacon Reporter”

    The doxxed reporter in the headlines is Aaron Sibarium, who has covered the story for the Washington Free Beacon and I link to the article below.

    Sibarium is probably around 24 years old and a recent Yale graduate. Ms. Hannah-Jones twitter antics are a small soap opera…she erases and posts strategically. The article includes this about the tweets:

    “Lol, and he included his phone number and thought you would actually call him,” Uché Blackstock, a Yahoo News medical contributor, commented on the now-deleted tweet. “Girl,” Hannah-Jones replied at 10:20 PM on Feb. 6—47 hours before she deleted it.

  4. The Times is clearly terrified of being seen as not progressive when it comes to race. If I worked there, I would not be comfortable knowing that any denunciation would end my employment, regardless of my past work.

  5. This whole brouhaha finally sent me to the Unsubscrbe option for the NYT. I’m’ in the middle of reading “Kindly Inquisitors “ by Rauch (thank you Mr. Coyne), and am amazed at how these events fall into his description of fundamentalist thought.

  6. It is tiresome, as well as incorrect, to refer to the Amlen/Hannah-Jones brats as “radical”. Opportunists of this kind, riding ideology for all it is worth, and generally with little talent beside scheming, took over much of academic Biology in the USSR between the late 1930s and the 1960s, with the results that have been evident for many years. If the NYT is headed toward the same condition as the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences during its period of domination by Trofim Lysenko and his acolytes, so be it. It will be refreshing as well as valuable to have a new “newspaper of record”, or several of them.

    1. I think that you’ve nailed it. Generally, the people being purged seem to be excellent journalists and reporters, and the ones doing the purging are considerably less accomplished. Most of this brouhaha around “harm done” may therefore be simply the mediocre people jealously bringing down the more talented.

      I mean really, get rid of one of your top employees because of a single word they uttered in a private conversation two years ago? A word that you can hear 10X a minute if you listen to any modern hip-hop “music”? A word that still appears in the very paper that you publish? And then try to tell people that this same word is evil no matter what the context?

      None of this adds up, unless we factor in the aforementioned office politics and the jealous weak ganging up to bring down the strong.

  7. Two years! How could anyone see this reversal after two years as anything other than a cowardly response to negative press?

    Had they fired him in response to the investigation two years ago, that might be poor judgment but it would at least be a sincere attempt to follow internal standards. But investigating him, finding no fireable offense, having two years pass, then firing him when it becomes public… The only ‘internal standard’ here seems to be ‘the corporation reserves the right to cover it’s own ass.’

  8. However harsh a word, I’m European and I can’t even begin to think of someone fired for uttering a forbidden definition. I’m afraid the whole United States are in a meltdown if woke fundamentalism is not considered as dangerous as QAnon faith and unfortunately I doubt I will go back overseas, despite the dozens of visits I made before. We really can do without a belated edition of the Band of Four bigotry. As for Dean Baquet, he’s a mediocre editor who never owns his innumerable mistakes

  9. I find it remarkable how little room PEN leaves for the use/mention distinction, couching it so delicately as to be barely discernible.

  10. ” Now look; no one is to stone anyone until I blow this whistle.
    Even, and I want to make this perfectly clear, even if they do say Jehovah.”

    You just cannot exaggerate the amazing hubris and lack of self awareness of these people. Not only are they stoning people who say a word, but they are doing so while wearing metaphorical skulls on their hats.

  11. The current progressive ideology is inherently unstable because it promotes division instead of striving for unity. Identity politics pits one group against another and cancel culture celebrates divisiveness while making speaking for unity dangerous. It drives out person after person and group after group.

    I do not think it can ever become entrenched because cannot grow to absorb the majority. That makes me feel better about the future.

    1. Not only that, but it is focussed inwardly. The NYT – previously a bastion of the liberal left of centre – has been weakened by this affair in that a) it has lost a good journalist, and b) a lot of people sympathetic to the left, such as PCC(E) now view it as circling the drain. The NYT, which should be one of the loudest voices proclaiming liberal values, is a laughing stock with more and more mediocre writers.

  12. Has anyone ever criticized Pulp Fiction for its gratuitous use of ‘nigger’? I got so fed up with it that I quit watching it. But I guess that’s Art, so it gets a pass.

  13. I agree with the sentiments above, and JAC’s impatience at the wokeness of the NYT, but the problem is what else to read? The Post? Daily Noos? Jesus!
    The NYT’s science section and international is still very good and many of their op-ed people are also.
    ESPECIALLY if you live in NYC: you need to know who, exactly, is trying to screw you and what the disaster of the day to careen into our city is.

  14. I believe that doxxing is a criminal offense in many states. I wonder whether a complaint has been filed against Hannah-Jones.

    And other comments are spot-on about the Wokists trying to displace people with actual talent. One of the questions I’ll never get to ask, alongside “Why should I believe you (i.e. show me the evidence for your race theory claims)?”, is “What have you ever done of value that would merit a place alongside the people with actual accomplishments to their name, whom you harass?”

    That last question is a bit bulky, but I’ll refine it before I ever have a chance to use it. 🙂

    Hannah-Jones and her ilk: Tearing down greatness to make room for mediocrity.

    1. In reference to your last comment about Hannah-Jones and “her ilk”: consider looking at it from an evolutionary game-theoretic point of view – as in the article abstract below. Note that, in order to situate the present cultural moment, you will need to, as it were, “re-contextualize” the article below with the appropriate terms. You speak of “greatness” and “mediocrity” – but these are, you will agree, value-laden terms that need to be put aside at least long-enough to understand that what is going on today is really an evolutionary play that has been staged and restaged for tens of thousands of years. Their “ilk” as you call them, are indeed playing an evolutionary strategy, especially pronounced in all sorts of hunter-gatherer societies the world over who maintain a roughly egalitarian social system, sometimes in socially very brutal ways. There is constant vigilance for who may be better than another, and those that are less able to compete on the same playing field, compete in other ways. It is indeed a kind of “game”, and the Darwinian point of view is only lately beginning to cast some light on it all (evolutionary psychology and game theory being my own preferred point of view). I don’t really known what the right “move” is to make in order to counter – or at least slow down – what is going on in your country (I’m writing from France), but it’s worthwhile taking some distance from it and try to see it from a Darwinian lens. Needless to say, the very attempt to point out this sort of thing to the likes of “Hannah-Jones and her ilk” is probably a non-starter, but it could be part of the educational thinking tool-kit given to the young so that they can better see the competition for what it is.

      Good reading to you!


      “Why Hate the Good Guy? Antisocial Punishment of High Cooperators Is Greater When People Compete To Be Chosen”

      Aleta Pleasant, Pat Barclay First Published April 30, 2018 Research Article Find in PubMed
      Article information


      When choosing social partners, people prefer good cooperators (all else being equal). Given this preference, people wishing to be chosen can either increase their own cooperation to become more desirable or suppress others’ cooperation to make them less desirable. Previous research shows that very cooperative people sometimes get punished (“antisocial punishment”) or criticized (“do-gooder derogation”) in many cultures. Here, we used a public-goods game with punishment to test whether antisocial punishment is used as a means of competing to be chosen by suppressing others’ cooperation. As predicted, there was more antisocial punishment when participants were competing to be chosen for a subsequent cooperative task (a trust game) than without a subsequent task. This difference in antisocial punishment cannot be explained by differences in contributions, moralistic punishment, or confusion. This suggests that antisocial punishment is a social strategy that low cooperators use to avoid looking bad when high cooperators escalate cooperation.

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