Slate suspends staffer for discussing whether or not NY Times was right to push out Donald McNeil

Earlier this month the NY Times pushed out longtime science writer named Donald McNeil Jr. after it came to light that McNeil had used the n-word during a NY Times’ sponsored student trip to Peru. In a statement released after his resignation, McNeil clarified that he’d been asked by a student on the trip if another student should have been disciplined for using the n-word. McNeil asked what the context was, i.e. was the student quoting a rap song or were they using the word as a slur. And in asking the question about context, McNeil used the word.

McNeill was disciplined at the time in 2019 but executive editor Dean Baquet (who is black) decided there was no malice in his use of the word and declined to fire him. But things changed when the 2019 incident leaked to the Daily Beast this month. As word spread, 150 Times’ staffers demanded a new investigation and suggested employees were unsafe working around McNeil. This became a big media story for several days earlier this month.

The fallout from this incident continues to impact people. A writer at Slate has been suspended indefinitely for arguing on the company’s internal messaging system that McNeil shouldn’t have been pushed out because his use of the word was not a slur.

Mike Pesca, host of Slate’s daily podcast, The Gist, has been suspended from the company indefinitely according to an internal memo sent to staffers late last night that has been obtained by Defector…

After some more polite back-and-forth with his colleagues, Pesca wrote: “Here’s my position. Expressing the views, not the word, the views he did on that trip are not fire-able. Worthy of a talking to or a ‘what are you doing as a representative of the Times Don?’ But nothing requirement much angst among management or staff? Or no? – should the Times discipline staffers who question the idea of White Supremacy or who express retrograde ideas on mass incarceration?”

Pesca went on in a subsequent message: “The question is: Is an out loud utterance of that word, in a work environment, fire-able, censurable, etc… Even as a point of clarification to a question exactly about the use of that word. I thought not necessarily. I agreed with John McWhorter. But that’s (notice the date) 2019 thinking. McNeil was originally disciplined in 2019. Just a little while later society seems to have rendered a different verdict.”

A few minutes later, Rachelle Hampton, a black staff writer, joined the conversation and wrote, “Feel like it’s weird that everyone’s dancing around the point that working in an environment where white people feel empowered to say the n-word in service of whatever argument they want to make is incredibly hostile for black people.”

I wrote about John McWhorter’s take on this story here. In any case it seems that Pesca never typed out the word when making this argument. A couple days later, Pesca was set to be suspended for a week because of this discussion. Then, in another parallel to the McNeil story, staffers brought up that Pesca had himself used the word in 2019 on two occasions, both when arguing that there were some instances in which non-black people could use the word in a discussion. When management learned of these earlier instances, they made his suspension indefinite.

So to sum this up. Donald McNeil was ushered out at the NY Times for using the n-word in 2019 in response to a question about someone using the n-word. Now Mike Pesca has been indefinitely suspended for a) arguing McNeil shouldn’t have been punished under the circumstances and b) for using the word himself in 2019 to argue that some uses of the word aren’t slurs.

I don’t think there’s any doubt in anyone’s mind that using this word is a firing offense under most circumstances. But in this case, it’s a writer at a news site discussing the news and whether or not the HR decision of a leading publisher was fair. If that’s (potentially) a firing offense it’s hard to see how companies will even make that clear to employees without violating the policy themselves.