The “resignation” of star New York Times science writer Donald McNeil Jr. has sparked a furious back-and-forth among Times staffers, many of whom are outraged over the Gray Lady’s handling of his departure.
The Washington Free Beacon reviewed a series of postings to a Facebook group for current and former Times staffers, where a tense debate is unfolding over McNeil’s exit. One camp argues that his dismissal was justified and another asserts it set a troubling precedent, which the New York Times union should have done more to prevent.
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“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.”
The back-and-forth provides a window into the latest racial controversy roiling the paper, which saw a revolt among minority staffers over the summer after publishing an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.). Opinion editor James Bennett ultimately lost his job.
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 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.
A Times spokeswoman muddied the waters further on Sunday, telling the Free Beacon that racial epithets had no place “in the newspaper.”
“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.”
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.
Greenhouse argued that the staffers who went after McNeil, including Hannah-Jones and race reporter John Eligon, had their priorities backwards. Many of them, he wrote in the Facebook group, were “far more willing to sympathize with these privileged 15- and 16-year-olds than with a long time colleague who has done much great work for the Times over the years.”
The debate also spilled over onto Twitter. Times reporter Michael Powell sparked backlash from colleagues when he tweeted a statement from the nonprofit literary organization PEN calling McNeil’s ouster “chilling.” Eligon responded by accusing him of racism: “You often wonder what your white colleagues who are lovely to your face are actually thinking or saying about you — or people like you — behind your back,” he wrote.
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.”