Donald McNeil on the freakout at the NY Times that led to him being pushed out (Update: The Times responds)

Today, former NY Times journalist Donald McNeil published his account of what happened from the moment the Daily Beast published a story about him of using the N-word on a student trip to Peru years earlier. McNeil says he missed the email from the Beast granting him about 3 hours to comment about the pending story. He was getting hundreds of emails every day and just didn’t see it. Then he got a call from his boss about it. She demanded he speak with Charlotte Behrendt, the managing editor for employee relations to collaborate on a response. Behrendt basically told McNeil not to speak to anyone and to let corporate handle it. After he got off the phone with her, McNeil wrote his own response to several of the allegations in the story.

1. Yes, I did use the word, in this context: A student asked me if I thought her high school’s administration was right to suspend a classmate of hers for using the word in a video she’d made in eighth grade. I said “Did she actually call someone a “(offending word”? Or was she singing a rap song or quoting a book title or something?” When the student explained that it was the student, who was white and Jewish, sitting with a black friend and the two were jokingly insulting each other by calling each other offensive names for a black person and a Jew, I said “She was suspended for that? Two years later? No, I don’t think suspension was warranted. Somebody should have talked to her, but any school administrator should know that 12-year-olds say dumb things. It’s part of growing up.”

2. I was never asked if I believed in white privilege. As someone who lived in South Africa in the 1990’s and has reported in Africa almost every year since, I have a clearer idea than most Americans of white privilege. I was asked if I believed in systemic racism. I answered words to the effect of: “Yeah, of course, but tell me which system we’re talking about. The U.S. military? The L.A.P.D.? The New York Times? They’re all different.”

3. The question about blackface was part of a discussion of cultural appropriation. The students felt that it was never, ever appropriate for any white person to adopt anything from another culture — not clothes, not music, not anything. I counter-argued that all cultures grow by adopting from others. I gave examples — gunpowder and paper. I said I was a San Franciscan, and we invented blue jeans. Did that mean they — East Coast private school students — couldn’t wear blue jeans? I said we were in Peru, and the tomato came from Peru. Did that mean that Italians had to stop using tomatoes? That they had to stop eating pizza?

There’s a bit more but you get the idea. The mostly white, woke students on this NY Times sponsored trip to Peru were prodding McNeil for simplistic answers to hot-button racial questions and he was trying to point out that there was some nuance involved in these discussions that shouldn’t be overlooked.

McNeil acknowledges that this wasn’t an apology. It was really his attempt at an explanation to counter the image of him that he felt was being conjured up by the Beast story. He sent his take to corporate and they told him they would not release it. He was told “people will find additional fault in too many details.” That’s a pretty good description of how woke mobs operate on social media.

Instead, corporate wanted McNeil to agree to a brief statement that said, “My comments were offensive and I should not have made them, and I apologize.” McNeil said no to that because he felt it was tantamount to confirming the Daily Beast story was true without offering any context. They eventually did agree on a slightly longer statement.

When the Daily Beast published its story McNeil began getting requests for comment and gave one brief response to the Post. But he was told by corporate not to speak to anyone, to let them handle it. The next day, the momentum of the story continued to build and after a zoom meeting with executive editor Dean Baquet, McNeil spent more than 5 hours working on a revised statement and then over the weekend things went quiet.

On Monday at 10:30 am McNeil had another call with executive editor Dean Baquet and deputy managing editor Carolyn Ryan. Here’s his account of how that went:

“Donald, I know you,” he went on. “I know you’re not a racist. We’re going ahead with your Pulitzer. We’re writing to the board telling them we looked into this two years ago.”

“But Donald, you’ve lost the newsroom. People are hurt. People are saying they won’t work with you because you didn’t apologize.”

“I did write an apology,” I said. “I sent it to you Friday night. I sent another paragraph on Saturday morning. Didn’t you get it?”

Dean didn’t answer.

“I saw it,” Carolyn said.

“But Donald,” Dean said, “you’ve lost the newsroom. A lot of your colleagues are hurt. A lot of them won’t work with you. Thank you for writing the apology. But we’d like you to consider adding to it that you’re leaving.”

“WHAT?” I said loudly. “ARE YOU KIDDING? You want me to leave after 40-plus years? Over this? You know this is bullsh*t. You know you looked into it and I didn’t do the things they said I did, I wasn’t some crazy racist, I was just answering the kids’ questions.”

“Donald, you’ve lost the newsroom. People won’t work with you.”

“What are you talking about?” I said. “Since when do we get to choose who we work with?”

There’s more to the account of the conversation. McNeil refused to resign and claimed they were twisting his arm. Baquet denied they were pressuring him but repeatedly asked him to consider resigning. At one point Baquet said, “We’re not firing you. We’re asking you to consider resigning.”

McNeil was understandably angry and later that day he hired an attorney. But four days after that, on the Friday after the call Monday morning, he agreed to allow the Times to announce his departure. They wanted to release a statement saying in part, “But Donald agrees that this is the right next step.” He declined so instead they released a statement saying, “But we feel that this is the right next step.”

If you’ve paid any attention to this story you already know that this account backs up most of what people have suspected was the case here. For one thing, McNeil didn’t jump he was pushed. He doesn’t explain what eventually made him change his mind between Monday and Friday but his initial reaction was that the whole thing was “bullsh*t.”

Perhaps more importantly, this also confirms that executive editor Dean Baquet was privately standing by his own determination from two years earlier that McNeil was not a racist and that this incident didn’t show he’d done anything worthy of firing. But Baquet gave in to pressure from the woke mob in his own newsroom. In fact, “you’ve lost the newsroom” was his only real explanation for asking McNeil to resign. That along with “People are hurt,” explains the kind of arguments that won the day.

Why couldn’t Baquet stand up to the newsroom and tell them they were wrong about McNeil? He is the boss, isn’t he? We don’t know exactly but I see two possibilities. First, there’s a suggestion in the piece that the outrage was so great that even Baquet’s job might have been on the line if he’d defended McNeil. So maybe he threw McNeil under the bus to save himself.

The other possibility which seems to be there if you read between the lines a bit is that that Baquet knew any effort to explain the situation would have gone as well for him as it did when McNeil tried to introduce some nuance in discussions with woke students on the Peru trip. Arguing with them would have accomplished nothing except to get them more worked up that the paper wasn’t bending to their will. Simply put, the woke aren’t interested in discussion, they are interested in compliance. Dean Baquet seems to know that.

Update: Here’s the latest terse statement from the NY Times.

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David Strom 5:21 PM on March 31, 2023