It’s Official: Linguistic Intent No Longer Matters at The New York Times
The New York Times on Friday forced out its lead pandemic reporter, 47-year newsroom veteran Donald McNeil Jr., because the Grey Lady’s management, under public pressure from more than 150 employees, decided that when it comes to speaking certain radioactive words, not only does intent not matter, any utterance is potentially a one-strike offense.
“We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent,” Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet and Managing Editor Joe Kahn explained bluntly in a memo Friday.
McNeil, 67, went as a representative of the Times on a 2019 trip with American high school students in Peru. There, according to his farewell note to colleagues—which, tellingly, was the first time the context of his career-ending comments had ever been reported during the 8-day life cycle of this journalism-world controversy—McNeil “was asked at dinner by a student whether I thought a classmate of hers should have been suspended for a video she had made as a 12-year-old in which she used a racial slur. To understand what was in the video, I asked if she had called someone else the slur or whether she was rapping or quoting a book title. In asking the question, I used the slur itself.”
After receiving complaints back then from at least six parents or students—one of whom said “He was a racist….He used the ‘N’ word, said horrible things about black teenagers, and said white supremacy doesn’t exist”—the Times “conducted a thorough investigation and disciplined Donald for statements and language that had been inappropriate and inconsistent with our values,” according to a company statement January 28. “We found he had used bad judgment by repeating a racist slur in the context of a conversation about racist language.”
Added Baquet in an internal memo: “During the trip, he made offensive remarks, including repeating a racist word in the context of discussing an incident that involved racist language. When I first heard the story, I was outraged and expected I would fire him. I authorized an investigation and concluded his remarks were offensive and that he showed extremely poor judgment, but that it did not appear to me that his intentions were hateful or malicious. I believe that in such cases people should be told they were wrong and given another chance.”
That’s what Baquet believed last week, anyway.
This week, the newsroom revolted via a remarkable group letter in which more than 150 staffers at one of the country’s leading newspapers argued that word-choice intentions are “irrelevant,” because “what matters is how an act makes the victims feel.” Signees, declaring themselves “outraged and in pain” and “disrespected,” demanded a reinvestigation of the 2019 incident, an apology to the newsroom, and an organizational study into how racial biases affect editorial decisions. They also alleged that the controversy had surfaced new internal complaints about McNeil demonstrating “bias against people of color in his work and in interactions with colleagues over a period of years.”
Rather than blanch at that suggested new journalistic standard—if the paper is no longer recognizing the linguistic use-mention distinction, then all it will take to prompt a vast scrubbing of the archives are enough offended “victims” of articles like these—The New York Times Company leadership (Baquet, Publisher A.G. Sulzberger, Chief Executive Meredith Kopit Levien) responded to the letter with anguished obsequiousness.
“We welcome this input. We appreciate the spirit in which it was offered and we largely agree with the message,” they wrote. “We are determined to learn the right lessons from this incident and take concrete actions to improve our workplace culture, ensure the integrity of our journalism, and examine the way we manage behavioral problems among members of the staff.”
The writing was on the wall. And not just for Donald McNeil.
Friday also saw the resignation of Times podcast producer Andy Mills, co-creator of The Daily and producer of the initially acclaimed and then heavily criticized series Caliphate, one of whose central
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