Ex-NYT Reporter Donald McNeil Jr. Hits Paper’s Leadership Over Ouster

Ex-NYT Reporter Donald McNeil Jr. Hits Paper’s Leadership Over Ouster
The New York Times Building in New York City on Feb. 4, 2021. (Daniel Slim/AFP via Getty Images)
Zachary Stieber

A former New York Times reporter who left the paper under contentious circumstances last month has pushed back on the notion that he’s racist and criticized the paper’s leadership.

Donald McNeil Jr. departed the paper after his use of a racial slur while leading an official student trip surfaced in news reports, stoking anger among some colleagues.

Dean Baquet, the New York Times editor-in-chief, initially told employees that McNeil did not appear to have malicious intentions when using the slur, and was formally disciplined after an investigation.

But McNeil was soon exiting the paper, it announced in a news story about memos Baquet sent staff. He wrote that McNeil “has done much good reporting over four decades” but added “that this is the right next step.” The ouster came after a group of staffers sent a letter to the paper’s publisher, alleging that the paper’s commitment to “diversity and inclusion” was undermined by standing behind McNeil.

Several days after the first story about the student trip in Peru emerged, McNeil said he was called by Baquet. In the Feb. 1 call, Baquet told him: “I know you. I know you’re not a racist.”

“But Donald, you’ve lost the newsroom. People are hurt. People are saying they won’t work with you because you didn’t apologize,” Baquet allegedly added, McNeil wrote in a new blog post.

McNeil said he did send an apology to editors at the paper, but they couldn’t agree on the correct wording.

McNeil said he protested, telling the editor-in-chief: “ARE YOU KIDDING? You want me to leave after 40-plus years? Over this? You know this is [expletive]. 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.”

McNeil says he did use a slur but was only doing so after a student asked him if he thought her high school’s administration was right to suspect a classmate of hers for using a word in a video she'd made in eighth grade. He used the slur to question whether that was the word the classmate used.

“Let me give you an alternative view of who’s ‘lost the newsroom,'” McNeil said he told Baquet.

“I’ve been getting emails and calls from bureaus all over the world saying, ‘Hang in there, you’re getting screwed.’ People are outraged at how I’m being trashed in the press and by the Times. If you fire me over this, you’re going to lose everybody over age 40 at the paper, all the grownups. All your bureau chiefs, all your Washington reporters, all your Pulitzer winners. Especially once they realize how innocuous what I really said was and that you didn’t find it a firing offense in 2019. And they’ll talk to every media columnist in town. The right wing will have a field day.”

Baquet said he wasn’t firing McNeil, but asking him to consider resigning.

McNeil said four days later he agreed to let the paper say he was resigning.

A spokesperson for the paper didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

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