Did The New York Times force out a star reporter over claims of racism, only to reassure the Pulitzer Prize Board that he was innocent?
This year marked the end of the 45-year-long tenure of Donald McNeil Jr. at The New York Times. Despite being a core component of the publication’s COVID-19 reporting team, McNeil was forced out in February by Times leadership after staff outrage over an old incident.
In 2019, when McNeil served as a chaperone for a student group on a Times-sponsored trip to Peru, he was asked by the students if he thought a classmate of theirs should have been suspended for saying an anti-black slur in a video. Wanting to know what exactly was said, McNeil reportedly asked the students if the classmate was “rapping or quoting a book title”; while doing this, McNeil said the offensive word himself.
Nobody alleged that McNeil was actually using the slur as a slur. Yet students objected to the simple utterance of the word, and that complaint eventually made it to Times leadership, which reviewed the incident and concluded that “it did not appear” that McNeil’s “intentions were hateful or malicious.”
That should have been the end of the episode. But earlier this year, The Daily Beast decided to run a sensationalist story reviewing the students’ complaints about McNeil, which centered not only on the use of the word but also on other perceived insensitivity. “He wasn’t respectful during some of the traditional ceremonies we attended with indigenous healers/shamans,” one student complained.
The public resurfacing of this episode caused an eruption of anger among some Times staff. More than 150 of them signed a letter calling his language “offensive and unacceptable by any newsroom’s standards.” Perhaps they were unaware that the slur in question is routinely printed in the Times, including several times in the past year.
Dean Baquet, the paper’s executive editor, reportedly told McNeil that he had “lost the newsroom,” as if his employment should depend on a popularity contest among some of his colleagues. This led to the reporter’s exit from the paper.
But in the latest turn of events, it appears that the Times is more than happy to stand behind McNeil and his reporting when it thinks that doing so will win them awards. On June 11, when the Pulitzers were announced, the Times picked up a prize for its COVID-19 coverage during the previous year, and McNeil’s reporting was explicitly cited as some of the “winning work” for which the Times was chosen.
“Fearing the controversy would cost them a Pulitzer, the Times wrote to the Pulitzer jury and board to reassure them that I was not a racist. They said they had looked into the same accusations in 2019 and had found them mostly false,” McNeil wrote, stressing, “I was told this both by…Dean Baquet and by [assistant managing editor] Glenn Kramon, who oversees prize submissions.”
If true, this means that the august publication once again confirmed that its leadership believed McNeil to be innocent of the charges against him. (Neither The New York Times nor the Pulitzer Prize Board responded to repeated requests for comment on McNeil’s claims.)
The apparent unwillingness of Baquet to take this acknowledgment to its logical conclusion—that McNeil is a good reporter, even if he is not the best chaperone for hypersensitive teenagers—is deeply hypocritical. If his missteps are so small that they should not worry the jury awarding Pulitzer Prizes, they are surely too small to push McNeil out of his job after four decades of service.
The cowardice on display among the leadership of The New York Times is being mirrored across a range of institutions in the United States today, where it often seems like the loudest and most incendiary staff can bully everyone else into submission. But Baquet can redeem himself, and the Times, for the unfortunate decision to refuse to stand up for this star reporter: The Times can simply offer McNeil his job back. He may not accept it, but after being unfairly forced out of the Times, he deserves the opportunity to make that decision.
What the publication’s leadership did to McNeil was wrong. This is one way to begin making it right.
Zaid Jilani is a frequent contributor to Persuasion. He maintains his own newsletter where he writes about current affairs at inquiremore.com.