Business|Ex-Times Reporter Who Used Racial Slur Publishes a Lengthy Defense
Donald G. McNeil Jr., a science and public health reporter at The New York Times who resigned under pressure last month after 45 years at the paper, published an account on Monday describing the circumstances of his departure, a four-part essay that was often critical of Times leadership.
A leading reporter on the coronavirus pandemic, Mr. McNeil announced his departure last month in the wake of an article in The Daily Beast about his comments and behavior during a Times-sponsored trip for high school students to Peru in 2019. Several students and their parents complained that Mr. McNeil, who was serving as an expert guide on the trip, had used a racial slur and made other insensitive remarks.
Shortly after his return, The Times investigated the matter and disciplined him, saying he had shown poor judgment in using the slur in a conversation about racist language. The Times’s investigation of Mr. McNeil’s behavior on the trip did not become public until The Daily Beast reported on it.
After the publication of the Daily Beast article, a group of Times employees sent a letter to Times leaders, questioning how the paper had handled Mr. McNeil. On Feb. 5, Dean Baquet, the executive editor, and Joe Kahn, the managing editor, announced his departure in a memo to the staff. As part of the announcement, Mr. McNeil apologized and said in a statement, “Originally, I thought the context in which I used this ugly word could be defended. I now realize that it cannot. It is deeply offensive and hurtful.”
In his four-part essay, published on the online platform Medium at more than 20,000 words, he wrote that his attempts to discuss serious issues with the students had sometimes fallen flat. He again acknowledged having used the slur, saying his use of it had occurred during a conversation with a trip participant about a student who had been suspended from a high school after a video from two years earlier had surfaced showing the student using the slur.
“Am I a racist?” Mr. McNeil wrote. “I don’t think so — after working in 60 countries over 25 years, I think I’m pretty good at judging people as individuals. But ‘am I a racist?’ is actually a harder question to answer about yourself than some self-righteous people think.”
He denied the allegation that he had rejected the existence of white privilege in a conversation with the students. And he was critical of an internal Times process that culminated, he said, with Mr. Baquet’s suggestion that he resign after he had “lost the newsroom.”
“We support Donald’s right to have his say,” The Times said in a statement.
Mr. McNeil also writes more generally of his decades at the paper and describes his active role in the NewsGuild union, adding that he found it unfair that some Times leaders who were considering his case had been on the opposing side during labor negotiations of past years.
His departure from The Times has led to a wider debate, with some people inside and outside the company saying it suggested that the paper had a climate inhospitable to debate, and others maintaining that Mr. McNeil should not have been allowed to continue in his previous role.
Mr. McNeil published his account on his first day as a former Times employee. The essay was vetted by two lawyers, he said.
“What’s happened to me has been called a ‘witch hunt,’” he wrote. “It isn’t. It’s a series of misunderstandings and blunders. I may be the only living Times reporter who has actually covered a witch hunt — in Zimbabwe in 1997. They inevitably end worse for the accused. I’m at least getting my say.”