Reporter says New York Times panicked over alleged racism case that led to his resignation


A veteran New York Times reporter who resigned last month under pressure after accounts of his conduct on a 2019 student trip to Peru caused an outcry in the newsroom has published a lengthy account of the episode, in his own defense.

Donald G McNeil Jr, who had worked at the Times since 1976, had not previously spoken at length on the record about the matter.

In a four-part, 21,000-word piece published on Monday on Medium, he said the Times “panicked” in handling his case and that its newsroom had become a “mean, spiteful, vengeful place”.

A Times spokesperson said: “We support Donald’s right to have his say, but don’t plan to comment further.”

Multiple students who went on a week-long trip sponsored by the Times to Peru, with McNeil, a global health reporter, as a resident expert, filed complaints at the end of the trip.

An internal inquiry concluded that McNeil “exercised poor judgment and a profound lack of sensitivity in a number of [his] interactions with the students”, according to a letter of reprimand McNeil quoted in his Medium piece.

A central complaint was that McNeil used a racial slur in conversation with students. McNeil defended his uttering the word, saying he used it in a discussion of whether a student who had used the slur elsewhere deserved school suspension.

After the internal inquiry, the episode receded and McNeil emerged as a leading voice in the Times’s pandemic coverage, with frequent front-page stories and guest spots on the widely followed The Daily podcast. The Times submitted his work on the coronavirus for Pulitzer prize recognition.

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But in late January the Daily Beast published details of the 2019 inquiry into McNeil’s conduct in Peru, bringing the episode to light for the first time for many in the Times newsroom and beyond. One hundred and fifty Times staffers sent a letter to publisher AG Sulzberger, saying “our community is outraged and in pain”.

“Despite the Times’s seeming commitment to diversity and inclusion, we have given a prominent platform – a critical beat covering a pandemic disproportionately affecting people of color – to someone who chose to use language that is offensive and unacceptable by any newsroom’s standards,” the letter said, in part.

It demanded an apology from McNeil, a renewed investigation and new anti-harassment policies.

In his Medium post, McNeil reconstructed in forensic detail his version of what followed. He publishes emails from and describes conversations with Times management, lawyers, colleagues and union representatives, as he worked to tell his side of the story and keep his job.

“Donald, you’ve lost the newsroom,” McNeil quotes the Times editor, Dean Baquet, as saying. “People are hurt. People are saying they won’t work with you because you didn’t apologize.”

The confrontations culminated in McNeil’s resignation, a week after the Daily Beast story was published.

In his Medium post, McNeil also described disagreements with students in Peru, denied most of the complaints made about what he said and explained he was trying to engage them.

“Obviously, I badly misjudged my audience in Peru that year,” he wrote. “I thought I was generally arguing in favor of open-mindedness and tolerance – but it clearly didn’t come across that way. And my bristliness makes me an imperfect pedagogue for sensitive teenagers.”

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He also wrote: “It’s been quite baffling and painful for me to have people assume I’m a racist and believe that I said the ridiculous things I’m accused of saying.”

In a story about the episode last month, the Times media columnist Ben Smith cited McNeil’s “imperiousness” and “impolitic views” and said he “sometimes alienated his bosses and colleagues”.

In his Medium post McNeill wrote: “I can be an asshole. If you’re an editor, and you made changes in a story of mine, and I lashed out at you like that, I’m very sorry.”

He sharply disagreed with the Times’s handling of his case.

“I do not see why [the students’] complaints should have ended my career at the Times two years later,” he wrote. “But they did.”





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