The Chaotic New York Times Embarrasses Itself While Making a Bigger Mess of the Don McNeil Firing

(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

For the paper of record, they are looking growingly inept within their own newsroom.

It has been one week since longtime star reporter Donald McNeil was compelled to resign over reports of his having used a racial slur in the past. The issue was completely overblown and the paper responded to it with an overreaction, and now the management is dealing with the reverberations and scrambling daily as they do. This week, the publisher killed a column by one of its major writers that was critical of the handling of the matter and now the in-house leaders are grappling with their own shifting standards while contending with a newsroom filled with woke reactionaries.


On Monday, Times writer Bret Stephens penned a column that was to be critical of the way the McNeil episode had been handled. But as Dylan Byers details, the publisher — A.G. Sulzberger — had the column killed, and it never ran. It was clear that management was becoming fearful of the mounting intolerance being displayed by the hypersensitive staff.

As I previously covered when the story first broke, the entire controversy is a ginned-up drama. The episode concerns a Times-organized student trip McNeil attended in 2019. During their travels, a student asked McNeil for his opinion on something that occurred at her high school; another student was suspended over a racial slur they used in a video when that third-party was only 12 years old. In his desire to clarify the story McNeil tried to determine which slur was used and spoke of it in this conversation. 

Since this became known, other details from the trip emerged, most of it supposition and students made to feel uncomfortable. For example, his stance that cultural appropriation is not a valid complaint upset some of the white students on the trip. McNeil’s actions were old news and dealt with in the past — following an internal investigation a reprimand was issued: ‘’We found he had used bad judgment by repeating a racist slur in the context of a conversation about racist language.’’ said the management at the time.


The Daily Beast recently dredged up these details, and this, in turn, led to an internal revolt at the paper. The Times’ management received a letter from more than 150 employees that complained about McNeil’s episode and demanded that more be done to address the heinous crime of speaking a word. This displays something described last year by Bari Weiss, another longtime writer who departed after enduring what she described as a civil war in the newsroom, between the old guard writers and the newcomer millennial set who are imposing a militant woke attitude at the paper.

In this letter, the petulant cranks said ‘’Our community is outraged and in pain.’’ Also, ‘’We, his colleagues, feel disrespected by his actions.’’ This, over something he said 2 years ago in another country, spoken in a context that was entirely innocuous, and in a conversation that not one single person who signed that letter heard personally. If any of these people were truly ‘’in pain’’ over this, the paper should have looked into dismissing those individuals for being manipulative scolds or an emotional infant incapable of working in an adult newsroom.

Instead of laughing the letter off and tossing it into the dashed-hope chest, the managers buckled under the outrage. New investigations were taking place and demands for an apology from McNeil were made. He deferred on this matter, and when the Washington Post contacted McNeil for a comment he gave the comment, ‘’Don’t believe everything you read.’’ These five words, according to Joe Pompeo at Vanity Fair, created outrage within the paper.


That comment did not go over well with newsroom management, whose reactions ranged from “annoyed” to “furious.” It also inflamed tensions within the rank and file, as did McNeil’s apparent lack of contrition. 

In reaction, the management overreacted. McNeil was pushed out, and then the paper began to make things worse. From that point forward, the controversy was not about a toss-away word spoken 2 years ago, becoming the bigger issue that The Times was in a state of chaos. A writer became a twice-punished individual now paying with his career after the paper knuckled under to the demands of its millennial scolds. After McNeil’s announced departure, things became less logical.

That same day, an email was sent out by Dean Baquet, Managing Editor and the one who frequently has to deal with issues of this nature. Baquet is an African-American and he also happens to be the person who initially dealt with McNeil’s episode. This means that the staff was now taking its outrage over a lack of racial sensitivity regarding that prior discipline to the same person of color who had issued the discipline. In response, Baquet wrote of the true zero-acceptance position they will be taking on these matters. We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.”

If the policy will now be tossing out intent, it means that the way they cover news stories will be completely altered. This was not only a draconian standard, but it is one that created problems for the paper as soon as it was issued. How then, would they perceive past articles in the very same paper that used the term? Do those get censored? Will writers who used the term be fired as well? Recently, Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the infamous ‘’1619 Project’’, used a racial slur in a tweet (she since deleted her entire Twitter archive) — will she be held accountable and lose her job?


Baquet began to appear lost in the matter. Recall his initial judgment on McNeil’s usage was based on the prior standard; “It did not appear to me that his intentions were hateful or malicious.” This means, where McNeil was not previously considered to have been insensitive, it today means a lack of guilt was inconsequential, due to a retroactive removal of interpretation.

Bret Stephens addressed this very problem, in his blocked column (provided to Byers) where he said, “Do any of us want to live in a world, or work in a field, where intent is categorically ruled out as a mitigating factor? I hope not.” Hannah-Jones also recognized the pitfalls of this inflexible application of the rule. “As far as I know, we haven’t rewritten the employee handbook. I think context matters and I think the very smart people who run the New York Times understand that.” Baquet came around to see his error, and in a meeting called on Thursday, he pulled back from the obsessive enforcement. He explained the new ruling was written in haste, and that he recognized this could impact content if applied as stated.

In our zeal to make a powerful statement about our workplace culture, we hamhandedly said something that some of you saw as threatening to our journalism…. Of course intent matters when we are talking about language in journalism.”


Great, but this now leads to a pair of other problems. First, it means that he, and essentially the paper, agrees with the position of Bret Stephens in the column the paper refused to run. Secondly, this now means that the firing of McNeil was probably an extreme reaction and that Baquet’s initial ruling on the matter should have been acceptable. Overall, it means the New York Times is in complete disarray on any given day.

If all of this sounds like a whirling emotional tempest of hysterics consider something — going back to when that Daily Beast article ran, this journalistic telenovela of distemper has played out over the course of barely two weeks. Careers have been rendered, newsrooms in upheaval, management appearing neutered and inept, and the entire image of the foremost newspaper of the country is slathered in clown makeup in just one fortnight. 

And this is the news organization that loves to dictate to all of us what is proper social behavior.


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