NYT Fires Star Pandemic Reporter Don McNeil
The veteran journalist was ousted after a staff backlash over the use of racial slurs.
The Daily Beast (“NY Times Star Reporter Donald McNeil Exits After Daily Beast Exposé“):
The New York Times on Friday announced the ouster of science and health reporter Donald McNeil Jr., who The Daily Beast reported had allegedly used racist language while on a 2019 trip with students to Peru.
McNeil, formerly the paper of record’s top reporter on COVID-19, leaves amid fallout from an incident that occurred during a Times-sponsored educational trip to Peru when he used the “n-word” and made other racist comments, according to complaints first reported by The Daily Beast. At least six students or their parents claimed McNeil had made racist and sexist remarks throughout the trip.
“I should not have done that,” McNeil confessed in a Friday email shared with Times staff. “Originally, I thought the context in which I used this ugly word could be defended.”
The science reporter further described the “n-word” incident as having occurred during a dinner discussion about the use of racial slurs, in which one student on the trip asked whether a classmate should have been suspended for using racist rhetoric in a video.
“To understand what was in the video, I asked if she had called someone else the slur or whether she was rapping or quoting a book title. In asking the question, I used the slur itself,” McNeil wrote.
He apologized for “extraordinarily bad judgment” to both the staff of the Times, singling out those he worked closely with, and to the students on the trip. “I am sorry. I let you all down.”
McNeil’s departure comes just days after Times staffers wrote a letter to the paper’s top brass expressing outrage over the allegations that McNeil had used racial slurs, and over the response from Times leadership, which the letter’s signers suggested was wholly insufficient.
Times executive editor Dean Baquet had previously said McNeil should be “given another chance” because his comments were not “hateful or malicious” in intent, but in a message to staff on Friday, the top editor wrote, “We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.”
McNeil started with the Times in 1976 as a copy boy and has won multiple awards for his work as a foreign correspondence and, for the last quarter-century, pandemic coverage. Regular listeners of the paper’s The Daily podcast are familiar with him through his many appearances there talking about the COVID pandemic.
I was aware of this controversy when it first broke but, because the Beast story is available only to subscribers and they’re not among the outlets to which I subscribe, I’ve only gotten the gist. At first, it seemed like a simple use/mention issue and I’m a rather ardent believer that people should not be sanctioned for the simple mention of a term, no matter how offensive its use may be. From this report, though, I gather that McNeil did thus repeatedly during the trip, possibly with the purpose of shocking people.
I’d still need more information to know whether I considered it a firing offense when weighed against four decades of exemplary reporting. Given that the editorial team, led by a Black executive editor, thought a reprimand was sufficient before a revolt by some staffers, I lean against it.