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.

FILED UNDER: Health, Media
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Sleeping Dog says:

    It is hard to fathom, why, in this day and age, someone as educated and worldly as McNeil would casually use racists terms.

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  2. Mister Bluster says:

    @Sleeping Dog:..educated and worldly

    Neither of these attributes of anyones life is an assurance that they are decent human beings.

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  3. James Joyner says:

    @Sleeping Dog: @Mister Bluster: Just don’t think we have enough information here that suggests he’s not a “decent human being.” He’s been with the NYT since 1976. He’s won awards from, among others, the National Association of Black Journalists. I think we’d have learned before now if he’s some sort of wild-eyed racist. Hell, he grew up in San Francisco and did his undergrad at Berkely from 1971-75. I’d be shocked if he’s not pretty liberal.

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  4. Scott says:

    Am I missing something? Using a racist term as a teaching moment with kids? This is the same rationale for banning the reading of Huckleberry Finn.

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  5. Michael Reynolds says:

    100% of Americans have used a racial or other type of bigoted speech at some point in their lives. 100% are therefore cancelable by current standards. Of course this means that the well-concealed hypocrites are the ones doing the judging. The hypocrisy and dishonesty is astounding. I really hope we’re going to outgrow this zero defects approach to life, understand that life is a bit more complicated and requires more judgment than simply identifying a forbidden word.

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  6. CSK says:

    @Scott:
    I wonder if one of Joseph Conrad’s more famous works has been stricken from the syllabus.

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  7. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @CSK: Years ago, I had the occasion to have to apologize to the staff of my school’s human resources department for having been overheard from another table describing adjunct faculty as the field n*****s of academe while the people at my table nodded in agreement with what I’d said. Oh well. But I didn’t get fired over it. That happened a couple of years later when the school declined to renew the contracts of 130 or so of us and replaced the 130 replacements the following year to establish that administration had that kind of power over adjuncts.

    After meeting with the Dean to be called out about it, I realized my mistake. I should have said “braceros.”

  8. CSK says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:
    I heard the exact same phrase used describe adjunct faculty. This was at Tufts, when I was one of the group so designated.

  9. Gustopher says:

    @James Joyner: Lots of liberals, even dyed in the wool SF liberals, are racist.

    @Scott, @Michael Reynolds: Agreed, assuming that this was using the word in context of a quote to make a larger point. If he thought he had found a way where he could say it over and over in an attempt to shock his coworkers… eh, you play with fire, you might get fired.

    (I say that as a person who enjoys playing with fire, biting the hand that feeds me, poking for limits and the like — I’ll eventually cross the line somewhere. The danger is what makes it fun.)

    I expect that he will land on his feet, though. Star reporter for the NY Times seems like someone the Washington Post or Boston Globe would be calling this weekend, and considering bringing on staff in a few months.

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  10. Gustopher says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    Years ago, I had the occasion to have to apologize to the staff of my school’s human resources department for having been overheard from another table describing adjunct faculty as the field n*****s of academe while the people at my table nodded in agreement with what I’d said.

    Surely the grad students and the post-docs are the field n*****s. Adjuncts are house n*****s.

  11. CSK says:

    @Gustopher:
    Well, in English departments, anyway, they all get stuck with freshman comp.

  12. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Gustopher: I was teaching at a 2-year college. We didn’t have any grad assistants and the post docs were being reviewed for tenure (mostly having had “get your Ph.D” as a condition). But point taken. The school I taught at was enrolled at ~220-250% of state FTE support and fully 65-70% of all classes were taught under adjunct contracts (which was how tenured faculty were paid for “overload” teaching).

  13. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @CSK: In my experience, it would include Math departments, too. Calculus is usually the equivalent of English 101 at universities, and 2-years have boatloads of preparatory algebra and trig classes that tenured faculty elect not to teach if they can. Personally, I liked teaching Freshman Comp and 2nd Term Comp better than I liked teaching Lit, but I was the exception.

  14. Jay L Gischer says:

    There is such a thing as the use/mention distinction. It seems he didn’t use the word, he just mentioned it, in leading a discussion of the word. For me, that’s not a problem. Opinion on this is mixed, for some it isn’t a problem, for some it is.

    Of course, it adds to the issue that this was a school trip, so it’s a bit like dropping f-bombs, or actually maybe more like discussing the history of that word (which is quite long and interesting). But some don’t like it, I guess.

    If that’s all there is to this, it’s pretty dumb. Here’s hoping he gets a good job at a better newspaper.

  15. CSK says:

    @Jay L Gischer:
    Dean Basquet siad that: “We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.”

    The context didn’t matter.

  16. EddieInCA says:

    I’m a huge fan of hip hop, including some that used that word often. Singing along with the songs, I make sure I don’t say that word, even in singing along. All it take is one person to be offended, and I’m on my way to HR, and possibly losing my job.

    Can’t imagine how someone, in this day and age, can’t understand that. This isn’t a new problem.

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  17. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    The “n” word wasn’t the only incident in the infamous Peru trip, and the Peru trip wasn’t the only problem that McNeil had inside the Times. Latin-Americans are something sensitive about Anglos saying insensitive things about their countries.

    To me the real issue with McNeil is that he shows a dangerous trend toward sensationalism inside the NYT(Remember COVID passports), a lot of his predictions proved out to be wrong. And oversensationalization was one of the issues with the whole “Caliphate” fiasco.

  18. Modulo Myself says:

    People going off about how he was just referencing the n-word by saying it are proving a point, I think. Trust me–the ‘n-word’ or the ‘that word’ for ‘n—-r’ has a 100% success rate if you want to convey what word you mean. So it was a choice, and clearly the guy used the word when he had another option.

  19. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    His problems came way beyond simply using the “n” word.

    https://www.thedailybeast.com/star-new-york-times-reporter-donald-mcneil-accused-of-using-n-word-making-other-racist-comments

    “He wasn’t respectful during some of the traditional ceremonies we attended with indigenous healers/shamans,”