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?”
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