The New York Times Reporter Fired for Uttering the N-Word Explains Himself

The rest of the story.

Above: famous supposedly racist reporter reporting on diseases in developing countries

This is going to be a shorter missive this week, as my main goal is to recommend to you a piece by former New York Times science reporter Donald McNeil, Jr., addressing the kerfuffle over his firing for having uttered the N-word on a trip to Peru. The piece is on Medium, and you get a very good idea what the nontroversy was all about.

As a reminder if you are new to the story, here are the basics as they were reported by the Daily Beast in a rather sensationalistic hit job:

Less than six months before he became the New York Times’ go-to reporter on the coronavirus pandemic, Donald McNeil Jr. was under intense scrutiny from the paper’s top brass over accusations that he made wildly offensive and racist comments while leading a Times student trip.

. . . .

He accompanied a student group on a Times “Student Journey” to Peru that focused on community-based health care in the region.

After the excursion ended, according to multiple parents of students on the trip who spoke with The Daily Beast along with documents shared with the Times and reviewed by the Beast, many participants relayed a series of troubling accusations to the paper: McNeil repeatedly made racist and sexist remarks throughout the trip including, according to two complaints, using the “n-word.”

A photo from the trip showed that at least 26 students participated. Of that group, at least six students or their parents told the tour company that partnered with the Times that McNeil used racially insensitive or outright racist language while accompanying the participants on the trip, which according to the Times website typically costs nearly $5,500. Two students specifically alleged that the science reporter used the “n-word” and suggested he did not believe in the concept of white privilege; three other participants alleged that McNeil made racist comments and used stereotypes about Black teenagers.

McNeil’s response is lengthy and in four parts. In it, he comes across as a sometimes acerbic, very smart, very talkative guy who is eager to let you know how smart he is, and not particularly worried about possibly rubbing people the wrong way. At the same time, he seems to have done an awful lot of good reporting and seems like anything but an ideologue or a racist. Dean Baquet initially concluded that McNeil had used bad judgment but had not had any racist or ill intent, but after a mutiny by the woke scolds at the newspaper, agreed to push McNeil out so as to keep the whiny rabble there happy.

I’ll give you three or four excerpts that caught my attention to whet your appetite to settle in for the long story. Early on, he explains why he is putting his thoughts on Medium. It’s to make sure the “jackals” of his former profession don’t twist the truth:

I’m publishing my thoughts here on Medium because I know journalists.

We make America what it is — without a free press, democracy dies. But we’re still jackals. We can befriend you for years, and then bite off your arm just as you’re offering us a treat. We can’t help it. It’s the nature of the job.

At the highest levels, like Watergate, it’s about digging for the truth, no matter what corrupt government official it hurts. At the basest level, when even the crummiest scandal erupts, you have to repeat the accusation, even if you know it’s untrue or half-true, in order to explain the truth — no matter how much you may personally like the source you’re hurting.

He talks about how he can be short with copy editors who mangle his copy for no good reason and make him sound stupid. He has used the word “thugs” to describe the way he believes some black teenagers dress. That said, he’s not some Rush Limbaugh clone. Here he is discussing some of his work:

Here are the awards I’ve won and some of the stories I won them for.

The 2020 John Chancellor Award for career achievement, including helping Africans get AIDS drugs and Indian cancer sufferers get pain relief. Just six months ago, the Times was happy to announce that.

2019 GLAAD award for writing about men on PrEP being denied insurance and a 2014 GLAAD nomination for covering gay black and Hispanic men with HIV.

2019 Association of Health Care Journalists award for reporting from Uganda and South Africa.

2012 AHCJ award for writing about HIV among adult film actors and drug injectors.

The 2007 RFK Human Rights Award for covering diseases close to eradication, including guinea worm in Nigeria and lymphatic filariasis in Haiti.

2002 National Association of Black Journalists Award for a series on AIDS in one South African town, from men in a bar to traditional healers to rape victims.

One of the sympathetic letters I got after the Beast article appeared was from a former USAID official who told me something I had not known: that my early reporting on mosquito nets helped lead to the creation of the President’s Malaria Initiative, which has saved millions of lives.

I’d say that’s a pretty good track record.

Here’s the email he initially wanted to send to the Daily Beast. Ask yourself whether this would have been such a big story if he had been allowed to send it:

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? Then one of the students said: “Does that mean that blackface is OK?” I said “No, not normally — but is it OK for black people to wear blackface?” “The student, sounding outraged, said “Black people don’t wear blackface!” I said “In South Africa, they absolutely do. The so-called colored people in Cape Town have a festival every year called the Coon Carnival* where they wear blackface, play Dixieland music and wear striped jackets. It started when a minstrel show came to South Africa in the early 1900’s. Americans who visit South Africa tell them they’re offended they shouldn’t do it, and they answer ‘Buzz off. This is our culture now. Don’t come here from America and tell us what to do.’ So what do you say to them? Is it up to you, a white American, to tell black South Africans what is and isn’t their culture?”

Having been a defendant in civil litigation — a situation not terribly different from facing down HR at the New York Times — I know that lawyers tend to like you to keep your answers short and to the point. That is not Donald McNeil’s way. He answered questions put to him by 12-year-old girls on a Peru trip at great length, and he answered the in-house lawyers’ questions in the same expansive manner. Asked if he ever sang a Boy Scout song, he doesn’t respond simply that he doesn’t remember. He immediately thinks of every Boy Scout song he has ever known — he can think of two — and then asks “was it this one? Was it that one?” Asked if he told a joke about a Jewish mother, he doesn’t respond simply that he doesn’t remember. He thinks of the only Jewish mother joke he can remember, tells it to the in-house lawyer, and asks if that was the joke. This kind of behavior horrifies lawyers. But frankly, to me, it lends his story real credibility. He’s not being guarded . . . at all. If anything, he is far too unguarded — but that gives you the impression he is actually honest.

In the end, he lies awake all night and remembers details he had forgotten — the “Boy Scout” song was Tom Lehrer’s classic send-up “Be Prepared” . . . and even then he sang only a couple of the more innocuous lines. The Jewish mother joke was a different one than he had originally told the lawyer. He dutifully trots off to the lawyer and tells her all these new details.

You’re getting the idea. He’s talkative but not dishonest.

Anyway, I said this would be shorter than the usual missive and I’m at 1,700 words, so I’m going to wrap this up. My takeaway is even firmer now that this guy was screwed by a bunch of hyperwoke millennials. We might have assumed that when kids who absorbed this sickening ideology left college, the reality of the workplace would transform them into sensible people with common sense. Instead, they are transforming workplaces into hyperwoke versions of the insanity we see on campuses. The utter unreasonableness of their New Ethic is going to transform society. It’s already starting.