Donald McNeil, fired from the New York Times, finally defends himself

March 3, 2021 • 10:45 am

After leaving the New York Times for, among other things, uttering the full n-word while accompanying a group of students on a 2019 junket to Peru, Donald McNeil has finally told his part of the story—on the day after he left the paper. The story, in four parts on Medium, was vetted by two lawyers.  And it’s long. Printed out in 9-point type, single spaced, it still occupies 43 pages, and took me 70 minutes to read.

However, if you want to see how toxic things are at the Times, and read McNeil’s defense, you might want to take an hour to read it.  Here are the links to the four parts:

Part 1. “The Introduction

Part 2. “What happened on January 28?

Part 3. “What happened during the investigation?

Part 4. “What happened in Peru?

Now the n-word accusations, and several others by 13 students, had already been investigated by the NYT in 2019; McNeil was reprimanded, and a letter put in his folder, solely for using that n-word, but he wasn’t penalized beyond that. But when The Daily Beast published a story on the accusations on January 28 of this year, the merde hit the fan. The Times staffers, largely the black ones, met with executive editor Dean Baquet, and, well, there was a complicated process of negotiation, with Baquet finally telling McNeil that he should “consider” resigning. Somehow—and this part isn’t clear in the account—McNeil, who didn’t want to resign, finally wound up leaving the paper. I suspect a lawsuit is in the offing.

Here are McNeil’s defenses, written this year, against three of the most serious accusations against him. The first is that he used the n-word in a discussion with a student, the second that he supposedly said that there was no such thing as “white privilege” and also denied the existence of systemic racism, and the third that he suposedly justified the use of blackface. None of the students’ accusations hold water, save that he did use the n-word, but just in a question about whether the student had indeed used that specific word.

McNeil’s partial defense (he goes on at length later in the series):

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?”

He expands on these explanations in detail, but it’s pretty convincing that, although he is a bit of a curmudgeon (and admits it), he wasn’t guilty of the offenses of which the paper accused him. The n-word was used more or less didactically—certainly not as a racial slur—and the paper itself has used the word (printed in full) several times. Their claim, then that “intent is irrelevant” when you use the word also holds no water.
If you want the short version, the NYT itself has published a pretty straightforward summary of the story and McNeil’s defense. But you won’t get the full flavor of this incident unless you have a look at McNeil’s side. Why is this important? Because the New York Times is America’s best newspaper—or at least used to be. Right now it looks to be a slave to Wokeness and a paper run not by the editors, but by an easily outraged staff in combination with social media.

There are indications of how toxic the NYT atmosphere is throughout the long series, but I’ll let Greg Mayer put this in an addendum to this post, so come back here in a day or so. Of course McNeil’s defense is just that: his defense, and you can say that he’s covering up things or putting a favorable spin on what happened. But it doesn’t seem like that, and we already know about the toxicity of the New York Times from its treatment of other staffers like Bari Weiss and James Bennet.

What offends me most is that the paper already fully investigated the accusations detailed in the Daily Beast article two years ago, and nothing new arose since. But it was the publicity, and the new outrage of the staff in the newsroom, that made the paper revisit the accusations and finally decide to dump one of its best science reporters. 

Watch this space for the addendum by Greg. I’ve concentrated briefly on the accusations against McNeil, while Greg is outraged at how the whole incident bespeaks a ham-handedness and unfairness in how the paper deals with its employees.

Addendum by Greg Mayer; as promised, here are some further thoughts on the McNeil matter.

When I first spoke to Jerry about McNeil’s account, I referred to the New York Times as a “hellhole” for the people who work there. Jerry, who focused his attention on the veracity of the allegations against McNeil, later asked me what made me characterize it in that way, and I responded with an unrehearsed litany of woe, as recounted by McNeil. When Jerry suggested I add something here about this, I at first hesitated to use that word, but, reflecting on what I had just told him, hellhole it is.

McNeil had a decades-long career at the Times, and had long been stationed overseas. Returning from overseas, he became a union leader, negotiating with Times management over contracts. The Times, however much it professes to be so on its editorial page, is not a champion of workers’ rights when it comes to its own workers, either in their compensation or their workplace rights. McNeil engaged in some tough negotiations, and the Times‘ eagerness to squeeze its workers is unedifying.

In 2019, some prep school students, who participated in a Times-sponsored trip to South America, complained about McNeil. He was called before a veritable star chamber, where he was peppered with questions, given no opportunity to examine or even learn what ‘evidence’ was being used against him, and– the pièce de résistance— his interrogators were the very management negotiators with whom he had already tangled on behalf of his fellow workers. Surprisingly, his union gave him little or no assistance. Times editors and managers, including those who asked McNeil to go on the trip, proved to be either ineffectual or unwilling to aid in his time of need. This ended, as one might expect, badly and unfairly– McNeil was officially disciplined.

Earlier this year, an article in the Daily Beast publicized the 2019 event, and the Times came back at him for a second round of punishment. Once again, Times editors were helpless, hostile, or both, and the union did little or nothing. The added element now was that McNeil’s fate was also put to a sort of plebiscite of his fellow workers– or some selected set of them, anyway– and they don’t like him. Displaying their weakness as a badge of honor, they called for management to get rid of him. Whatever happened to worker solidarity! As Marx didn’t write,

Workers of the world divide! You have nothing to lose but your institutional safeguards against arbitrary dismissal!

McNeil was forced to resign. (This may be construed as constructive dismissal, and it might also violate the union contract to be disciplined twice for the same ‘offense’, so McNeil may have grounds to sue. However, he has indicated a disinclination to do so. I’d like to see him write for the NY Daily News!)

Executive editor Dean Baquet comes off especially badly in the whole affair. Appearing weak and ineffectual in 2019, in 2021 he feigns sympathy, and then stabs McNeil publicly in the back, issuing his transparently mendacious and now infamous “regardless of intent” statement. If Dean Baquet likes you (as McNeil thinks–or thought– he did), you’d better run!

What McNeil– and the Times— needed were discerning adults who knew what was going on, and had some sense of judgment; who knew how to weigh a few teenagers’ complaints against a decades-long career, which was just, in many ways, peaking, with much lauded coverage of the COVID pandemic. Instead, he got inquisitors who combined personal animus, management vendetta, ideological axe-grinding, and corporate CYA into a witches brew of poison, which has now ended his career, and further degraded the now sagging reputation of the Times.

McNeil expresses some fondness and respect for the Times— who wouldn’t, after having given more than 40 years of his life to it. And any institution as large as the NY Times must have good and bad aspects. But it’s beginning to seem a bit like East Germany– sure, you could live a decent life there if you kept your head down and went about your business, but woe betide he who runs afoul of the system.

(I’ll mention two things parenthetically here. First, I met McNeil several years ago when he visited UW-Parkside as part of a program the Times was running to encourage subscriptions and the use of newspapers at college campuses. I went to his presentation, and asked him a few questions afterward. I mention this not because I have any relationship to him, but because it shows that, good Timesman that he is– or was– he was out on the hustings, hustling for the Times– much as he was in Peru.

Second, disrespect for a shaman? You gotta be kidding me. Having taught a course called “Science and Pseudoscience” for many years, this really riled me. In a trip designed to educate students about rural public health, the teachers damn well better be able to distinguish between medicine and quackery, and to develop that skill in their students. While the distinction between cranks and charlatans is a useful one (the former to be granted some leeway for their sincerity), disdain and even ridicule is sometimes called for. As H.L. Mencken said, and Martin Gardner endorsed, “One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms.”)

h/t: William, Greg

49 thoughts on “Donald McNeil, fired from the New York Times, finally defends himself

  1. Thoughts: The NYT headline: “reporter who used racial slur …” is dishonest. He referred to the slur rather than “using” it to insult someone. The difference really does matter.

    Second, reading the full accounts (including the long 4th one), it’s clear that the students were spoilt brats who simply can’t cope with diversity of opinion. Or, rather, they’re so sure of the moral correctness of their own opinions that any deviation from that is sufficiently heinous to warrant firing and ostracisation.

    This is a rejection of the whole basis of a liberal democracy, which rests on the idea that we agree to differ, rather than demanding that everyone have the same religion or politics or favourite sports team as we do.

    Third, it’s clear that McNeill was doing what any good adult educator would do, challenging the students’ opinions and putting alternative views to them, as a way of prompting them to think. The students, though, wanted only affirmation of their existing beliefs.

    Lastly, the bits where McNeill links to NYT articles containing the very same bogey word (hide your eyes!) in full, as uttered by, for example, Obama, are rather amusing and show how ludicrous and hypocritical the woke religion is.

    [Sorry, had to make a rather long comment to justify the time I spent reading all that yesterday. 🙂 ]

    1. it’s clear that the students were spoilt brats who simply can’t cope with diversity of opinion…

      Well, they’re students. They’re learning how to be self-critical, objective, academic. Meaning: they don’t do all that correctly yet. I don’t really blame them for reacting with shock at some foreign cultural tradition which would be, to them, highly offensive. The paper is the one at fault here; they should’ve stood up for their reporter.

      In some good parallel world, instead of firing the reporter over the blackface discussion, the paper offers a matching grant to the school so future students can go to Cape Town for the festival, and experience the festival for themselves.

      1. I agree that the real culprits here are the adults. The kids did behave like spoiled brats, but kids do that. Especially when it gets them what they want from the adults.

        If any of these kids truly were highly offended by this festival then the adults in there lives have failed them badly. I’m more inclined to believe that their outrage was affected.

  2. I have never cared for the term “The N Word”. I much prefer the term I first heard on The Jim Rome radio show many years ago: “An N Bomb”. As in, he was fired for dropping an N Bomb on a co worker

  3. “In South Africa, they absolutely do.

    Long time ago, I helped chaperone a HS trip to Spain during Holy Week. The KKK-berobed lookalikes were everywhere! However, we all caught on pretty quick. None of the students or adults took offense once they figured out the cultural context.

    I will say, however, that my own cultural bias did limit my behavior. I didn’t buy a little figurine of a berobed celebrant, even though I kinda wanted to. As quirky and amusing as that would’ve been, ain’t no way that was going up on the mantlepiece, or even in a desk drawer.

  4. Have only read Jerry’s partial account of McNeil’s defence, in italics, and this is tangential to the main thrust, but in McNeil’s first paragraph, he states the question was should the classmate have been suspended for using the n-word. Another response to that student could have also been, why didn’t the school suspend the black pupli for using insulting words about her Jewish friend. All done jokingly we’re told but insults are insults. Suspend both, or none at all.

    1. And why can’t two students joke with each other? It may offend someone but so what? They were having their own private interaction and doing so it a friendly way.

    2. “Another response to that student could have also been, why didn’t the school suspend the black pupli for using insulting words about her Jewish friend.”

      Yes, I too wondered why no one had queried that.

  5. It’s really sad to see how crazy this thing has become in the US. I am an educator myself (teacher high school in Norway) and thankfully my students are nowhere near as snowflakeys as it seems many are in the US. I have never used the ugly n-word in class myself, but when I teach Spanish I often talk about the word “negro” or “negra” and tell my student that in Spanish speaking countries this is completely neutral. Of course, It can be used as a racist remark also in Latin countries, but generally it’s not offensive. In fact, often it’s used as a term of endearment. My wife is mixed white-negra (Colombian) and she does not at all find the negra word offensive. The Norwegian equivalent of negro is “neger” and we do have a discussion in Norway also about the use of this word. Should we use it or not? The politically correct view now these days is that we should not use it.
    My wife works in a care home and when old people refer to her as a “neger” she won’t react negatively to that at all. Some of her colleagues from Africa, however find the use of this word (neger) highly offensive.
    I my self won’t use that word when I talk about black people for exactly that reason. When I am in Colombia however, I have no problem to use this word. In fact, my whole family in Colombia use the word among themselves all the time
    The use of the ugly n-word to, or about people of course is highly offensive, but when used in the context as this story tells I really can’t see whats so horrible about it.

    One common expression one ofte hear from people in latin america is “Trabajo como negro para vivir como blanco” (Working like a negro to live as a white)

    Funny thing, I had never heard it before before my (colored) wife made a joke using it.

    1. In the UK, Spanish-speaking footballers have got into trouble for using the word “negrito”. E.g. Edinson Cavani for replying “Gracias, negrito” to a friend who congratulated him on scoring two goals. We really, really need to return to the time when intent was by far the most important aspect of such speech!

      Most notably, though a while ago now, Louis Suarez got into big trouble over that word, and I for one consider him to have been hard done by.

      1. When that did happen I heard my wife talk to her familiy in Colombia on whatsapp and they all agreed that the reactions to that poor guy was totally unheard of.
        None in my family og friend have ever been offended when anyone use the term “negrito” or “negrita” about them, they, as black or mixed race Colombians consider the term completely nonoffensive.

        One word I will never use in Latin-America however is the word “indio” (Indian), this word is highly offensive to these people. The proper word to use is “indigena” . Many white people, however, in Latina america use “indio” and then usually in an offensive way

        1. [Reasonable] When in Rome…

          [Woke]…attack the Romans for speaking Latin words whose English derivation is insulting.

    2. That’s funny. I am a Spaniard myself living as an expat somewhere else. My own daughters, raised in these new wave of wokeness in their school, sometimes cringe when we at home say the word “negro” which is not necessarily more offensive than “white” in itself. It is so tiresome.
      I remember when, at university, a black friend of mine was having a discussion with a guy who for some reason wanted to make a reference to a black person. Suddenly becoming aware of the race of this friend of mine, he stuttered midsentence “you know a bl…, a person of… color”. The black guy, half amused half irritated, fired back: “Of what color, you idiot?”.

      1. I think the rule here to avoid the woke police is to use the word African when talking to an African and reserve the word negro when you talk to latinamercans

        I have a gay Spanish friend and his boyfriend is British-Nigerian, (mixed race, but rather black) , I wonder if my Spanish friend use the word negrito when they are together. Should I dare to ask him?

        When I first met this British-Nigerian guy I knew I had to be carefull, but silly me, I asked “What ethnic backgroud do you have (I wanted to know: Are you African black, or Caribian black, or South American black)

        I could see the rage in his face and asked him: Is it offensive of me to ask this? His Answer was yes, I hate it when people ask this. I am British.

    3. In Germany, young journalists now write about “Neger” (means negro, and used to be similarly neutral rather than offensive) as the “N-Wort” with an allegedly similarly sinister history. I abhor the cultural influence of the US 😐

      1. The days when American Cultural Imperialism was largely a good thing are past. Now all the US exports is its own neuroticism.

    4. I contemplate the putative, prospective offensiveness of the Portuguese title of the 1959 Brazilian movie, “Black Orpheus,” as well as the names of two countries sharing a border at approx. 15 degrees N and 10 degrees E.

      Some years ago while substitute teaching in a high school “Honors” (alleged) chemistry class, I was appalled at the pervasive, distinctly indifferent attitude of the vast majority of students toward the subject, inordinately focused on if not obsessed with their digital pacifiers instead of on the subject in a spirit of intellectual curiosity and academic excellence as the moniker “Honors” would seem to imply. I pleaded with them to focus on the lesson. Two fine gentlemen reacted, one saying to the other of me, “This cracker be trippin’!” (I wondered to what if any degree I should be “offended” by that pearl of wisdom.)

      Well, I guess that’s just the way youngsters are. (Dubya’s “soft bigotry of low expectations” notwithstanding.)

  6. “Right now it looks to be a slave to Wokeness…”

    Shouldn’t this read “Right now it looks to be an enslaved person to Wokeness…”? 😉

  7. I think any firm or institution that gives up their responsibilities to the employees or workers is in very dire straits. What is happening at the NYTs is the same thing that has happened at many schools. It is a losing formula that will not end well for the firms or the people. Someone will need to prove to me that letting part or all of the employees run the company and make the important decisions will result in any good and I will say, it will end in great damage to the newspaper in this case. When unions are created at companies all of the issues the union can bring to management are included in the contract. Things like pay and work hrs. or even environment will be in the contract as issues for discussion. I have never seen (employees will be allowed to have employees fired or have any direct input into who will be hired). Getting into the details of what this employee did or did not do is just getting into the weeds. Management by fear is a hell of a way to operate.

    1. Absolutely agree. Or rather, the management are giving up any sense of responsibility towards *some* employees (white, older, male) while paying fawning attention to the outrage of others. As you say, a union would have an acknowledged responsibility to represent the economic interests and legal rights of *all* its members, so would automatically have an interest in resolving, rather than escalating, these kinds of conflicts. In their absence there is this blurring of distinctions between management and the mob, with no mediating or balancing force. Yet another reason why the norm of at-will, un-unionized employment is such a disaster for the US, and why so many Americans seem unable to see the economic and class issues at stake, transferring all their anger and inchoate sense of injustice onto a hyper-inflated awareness of identity instead.

      1. I guess another question I might ask — is management not taught in colleges any longer. If so is anyone taking it? Just because most people here are in the sciences or teachers and so forth, does not mean that management no longer exist. Certainly there is good and bad management but almost any place where several people work, there is management. I am pretty sure a newspaper the size of the Times has management even if they appear to be absent in this conversation.

        1. I wonder if the management in question are senior (or perhaps not so senior) journalists who have moved sideways into management without any real background or training …

  8. Another comment about offensive words: When I am in Colombia people often call me “mono”
    This means “blond” (hair color), can also mean “cute”, but the word also means “monkey”. Should I be offended?

    1. Since I’m neither cute nor blond I would be offended. Except… since actually am a monkey I have no cause for the offense at all!

      1. That’s right, in fact, we are all African apes. Maybe the reason I am not offended is because I am a biologist and we should acknowledge the fact that Homo sapiens sapiens are African apes. (The third chimpanzee as Jared Diamond says)

    2. You are overthinking this. In latin countries intent is everything and even swear words, particularly in Spain, can be friendly depending on context. This obsession with words and language is just an anglo-specific colletive mental disorder.

  9. “The student, sounding outraged, said “Black people don’t wear blackface!”

    Someone needs to watch Spike Lee’s underappreciated classic Bamboozled.

    For that matter, everybody should watch Spike Lee’s underappreciated classic Bamboozled.

  10. “The n-word was used more or less didactically—certainly not as a racial slur—and the paper itself has used the word (printed in full) itself, several times. Their claim, then that ‘intent is irrelevant’ when you use the word also holds no water.”

    Remember: the paper printed the word in an article no less than two days after firing this man!

  11. This is a horror story, it’s so disheartening to see that the Cultural Revolution and the Khmer Rouge are resurfacing, we never learn

  12. Is it possible the students were setting McNeil up for punishment? In other words, that they were trying to get him to say something that could be the basis of an outraged complaint? They obviously didn’t like him, and eighth graders are old enough for intrigues..

  13. As many others have noted, while the students were spoiled brats, it is the adults who are at fault for not setting them straight and sticking up for McNeil. That includes, of course, the New York Times. The New York Times is an abysmal disappointment. I finally canceled my subscription yesterday.

  14. By the way, just clicked on the NYT article. While it sounds fairly neutral, it carefully makes the NYT sound better with the quotes it decided to use from McNeil’s account. For instance, the article uses McNeil’s gracious conclusion, in which he refuses to call what happened to him a “witch hunt” because he covered a real witch hunt in Zimbabwe and knows how much worse the outcome of a real witch hunt would be. McNeil was being gracious with that statement, not letting the NYT off the hook–but when read in that article, it certainly sounds like McNeil doesn’t necessarily question the crazy process by which he was forced out, and the awful mob mentality of his former co-workers.

    Also, I see they’re not allowing comments. They know the paper would be savaged in the comments section. I’ve noticed for a long time that the “NYT picks” from comments on any article covering woke issues will be overwhelmingly pro-woke, while the “Readers Picks” comments will be reliably anti-woke.

  15. Interesting read, and there seems to be more going on than just “the paper is going woke”. Note how he used to be a union negotiator, and the people who handled his disciplinary meetings were the same he clashed with during talks about pension and benefit cuts etc. the paper made. Honi soit qui mal y pense …

  16. One thought occurs to me about the motivations of the Woke at NYTimes in pushing out people far superior to themselves in skills of fact finding and reporting. Whether they recognize it or not, they feel genuinely threatened by the excellence of others. Their offense over one incident with the n-word years earlier is mostly, I think, stage fire. Even while they try to undermine meritocracy in all its forms, they believe themselves to be working at the paper of record because of their intellectual prowess and deep insight into the way the world works, and they must bury any evidence that points out how truly mediocre they are.

    In addition, their intellectual bubble is extremely fragile, so they feel threatened by anyone whose mere presence invites factual, objective discussion. Such a person is a threat and must be removed.

    And anyway, they mustn’t let reporting of facts get in the way of their prime directive, to proselytize the world to Wokeness.

  17. As an alte kaker myself, i just wanted to thank you for providing the full text of donald mcneil’s letter. It is a sad affair for him, but even more sad for America, that important, no make that fundamental organizations like the nyt have transformed into management driven shells of their former selfs. This is the same thing we have seen in universities and what i saw in my final years at my federal lab. I kept telling myself that it was just a generational change in leadership and not to fight, but simply retire as i certainly was not going to change. Reading mcneil’s letter clearly explains a lot. Thanks again.

  18. People have been calling for relatively sensible Republicans to distance themselves from Trump, QAnon, and so on. Jerry has been good at calling out wokeness, as has Steven Pinker, but we need many more old-fashioned liberals, probably even more so that Biden is now President, which some might see as a vindication of anything which is not Trump. Because some people are stupid, it probably needs to be spelled out that being anti-woke doesn’t mean that one supports Republican causes, not even moderate ones.

    Of course, some might think that it is good that the Republicans don‘t distance themselves from the absurd ones in their ranks, hoping that it will make them less electable. Well, if Trump was elected, essentially anything is possible. However, it cuts both ways. I‘m sure that there are people (even some commentators here) who, rightly or wrongly, will not vote Democratic because of wokeness (they might not vote at all, or for a third party, but that is almost as bad as voting Republican). Some in the middle will choose the Republicans as the lesser of two evils when faced with the choice between them and wokeness.

    1. These are very good points phillip. it takes courage and a thick skin to confront much of extreme wokeness, particularly in education, both k-12 and university. And it seems that there are precious few media outlets willing to host a discussion.

  19. Returning from overseas, he became a union leader

    Ah. “target” is the EN_US spelling for “union leader”, I believe. Actually, very often the same spelling and meaning in EN_GB, these days.
    Disagreeing with the management is a dangerous position to take. Very bad for the career.
    So, he was there for 40 years? That would imply a quite substantial pension pot. Another reason for the management to find to get rid of the liability.
    Cynical? Moi?

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