Donald McNeil Jr. worked for 45 years at the New York Times, going all the way back to his days as a copy boy in 1976 after graduating with top honors at Cal-Berkeley. He's good at what he does as a science and health reporter, which includes extensive coverage of epidemics and pandemics, having most recently won a John Chancellor Award in 2020 and a 2002 first place for international reporting (beating 150,000 other entries) from the National Association of Black Journalists.
Yet, today, he's out of a job based on a lie.
The decision to oust McNeil came after it was reported in the Daily Beast that he had used a racial slur during a trip to Peru sponsored by the Times. In today's world, this sounds like a slam-dunk reason for dismissal regardless of resume or time served. But the story isn't that simple.
"Star NY Times Reporter Accused of Using 'N-Word" reads the Daily Beast headline. At a time when more and more people only read headlines and captions on social media feeds without exploring the article itself, that would appear to be devastating.
The Times investigated the report and concluded that McNeil "had used bad judgment by repeating a racist slur in the context of a conversation about racist language." Executive Editor Dean Baquet, however, also concluded that it did not appear to him that McNeil's intentions "were hateful or malicious."
Once his decision on McNeil was announced, more than 150 staffers signed a scathing letter calling for their colleague to be fired; some of them weren't even born when McNeil started with the paper during the Ford administration. McNeil then resigned.
What exactly did McNeil say? Remember, the Times investigation concluded that he had repeated a racial slur "in the context of a conversation about racist language." That's quite different than saying such a thing on his own.
So, here's how this went down: A student on the trip asked McNeil about a classmate – 12 years old at the time – who used a racial slur in a video that led to a suspension by the school. "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," McNeil wrote in a farewell letter to colleagues. "In asking the question, I used the slur itself."
Baquet's original ruling was the correct one: This wasn't said in malice or because McNeil – who hasn't been accused of uttering anything remotely racist or even controversial in his 45 years in journalism – has been a closet racist all of these years. It was a 67-year-old man simply trying to establish context around answering a question.
Ironically, the Times printed the same racial slur in a Feb. 2 article, citing a quote from 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
There are some prominent NY Times columnists who are not taking this decision lying down. Conservative Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bret Stephens attempted to defend McNeil in a column, but that was ultimately spiked, as first reported by NBC News. Nope — can't have any dissenting voices unless we agree with it, says Times senior management.
The “woke” mob has really racked up some victories lately at the nation’s famed newspaper of record, getting award-winning editors and reporters ousted for some of the most questionable reasons. The first win came last June, when Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonHillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Tech groups take aim at Texas Republican lawmakers raise security, privacy concerns over Huawei cloud services Debt ceiling fight pits corporate America against Republicans MORE (R-Ark.) wrote an op-ed for the Times advocating the deployment of national guardsmen to American cities to help control last summer’s violent protests — a pretty prophetic suggestion, considering what we witnessed during the horrific riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Yet, Cotton’s opinion piece provoked a severe public backlash from other writers at the Times, with Pulitzer Prize-winning opinion editor James Bennet being forced to resign as a result.
In a poll taken before Cotton's column appeared, 52 percent of Americans supported deploying the military to control urban violence. That would seem to make the subject of his column a worthy topic for debate, since roughly half the country agreed with it and half didn't. In the end, however, the only poll that appeared to matter at the Times belonged to woke activists in the newsroom.
Soon after, columnist Bari Weiss resigned from the paper while underscoring how patently toxic the newsroom had become. "My own forays into Wrongthink have made me the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views," Weiss wrote in a resignation letter that instantly went viral in July. "I do not understand how you have allowed this kind of behavior to go on inside your company in full view of the paper’s entire staff and the public. And I certainly can’t square how you and other Times leaders have stood by while simultaneously praising me in private for my courage.”
She added: “Showing up for work as a centrist at an American newspaper should not require bravery."
The Times often talks about the importance of diversity in American life. But when it comes to diversity of thought — well, apparently that doesn’t matter. Either join the hive mentality or be eliminated.
The facts were on Bennet's side; the facts were on McNeil's side too. Both men have the skills and the reputations to back up their instincts, their work. But none of that mattered in either case.
For the good of its readers as well as the country, the Times – which has produced some of America's most important news stories and most legendary journalists – should refocus on its "All the news that's fit to print" roots and leave the wokeness aside.
Joe Concha is a media and politics columnist for The Hill.