The New York Times has officially decided that context and linguistic intent do not matter. If one of the paper’s employees — even a veteran reporter who has worked at the Times for 45 years — dares to mention a racial slur for any reason, the paper may terminate his or her employment, especially if a cancel culture mob rears its ugly head.
Take Donald McNeil Jr., for example. McNeil joined The New York Times in 1976, the same year Jimmy Carter got elected president. He had been serving as the Times‘ lead pandemic reporter during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet McNeil apparenlty had committed a fireable offense in 2019. He had spoken with American high school students on a trip to Peru that year. One of the students asked him whether or not a classmate of hers should have gotten suspended for a years-old video in which the classmate had used a racial slur. It appears McNeil mentioned the n-word in asking the student to clarify the situation.
As Reason‘s Matt Welch noted, this situation appears to involve the use-mention distinction — McNeil had not used the n-word to describe anyone, to attack anyone, or to malign black people. Instead, he had merely mentioned it in order to clarify a situation. Yet, following eight days of manufactured outrage in the wake of a sensationalized Daily Beast story on this supposedly horrific verbal offense, the Times summarily dismissed a reporter who had worked there for nearly half a century.
“We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent,” Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet and Managing Editor Joe Kahn explained in a memo on Friday.
This termination represented an abrupt about-face from Baquet’s original response to the situation. Times management had actually launched an internal investigation after at least six parents or students connected to the Peru trip complained about the incident. One of the complainants alleged that McNeil “was a racist. … He used the ‘N’ word, said horrible things about black teenagers, and said white supremacy doesn’t exist.”
On January 28, the Times announced it had “conducted a thorough investigation and disciplined Donald for statements and language that had been inappropriate and inconsistent with our values. We found he had used bad judgment by repeating a racist slur in the context of a conversation about racist language.”
Baquet himself explained that the paper had not decided to terminate McNeil. “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,” the executive editor explained. “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,” Baquet added.
Yet the cancel culture mob would brook no forgiveness. More than 150 New York Times staffers banded together to sign a letter demanding “discipline” for McNeil. The staffers claimed that word-choice intentions are “irrelevant” because “what matters is how an act makes the victims feel.” Employees at America’s newspaper of record described themselves as “outraged and in pain,” “disrespected,” and “deeply disturbed.” The staffers demanded an investigation of the incident, an apology to the newsroom, and an organizational study into how racial biases affect editorial decisions.
The staffers also claimed that the controversy had led to new internal complaints about McNeil demonstrating “bias against people of color in his work and in interactions with colleagues over a period of years.” It seems curious that these complaints arose only after the scandal had erupted. It appears the Times staffers, zealous to seize power by claiming to be victims of oppression, may have reinterpreted innocent interactions with McNeil as incidents of racism.
As Welch noted, Times leadership, including Baquet, Publisher A.G. Sulzberger, and Chief Executive Meredith Kopit Levien, responded with “anguished obsequiousness.”
“We welcome this input. We appreciate the spirit in which it was offered and we largely agree with the message,” the team 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 Times leaders did not address or apologize for previous articles that use the n-word in headlines…
After the paper had caved to the cancel culture mob, McNeil shed light on the true story from the Peru trip. The scapegoat explained that he “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.”
McNeil sought, in vain, to appease the mob in his farewell note.
“Originally, I thought the context in which I used this ugly word could be defended. I now realize that it cannot,” he wrote. “It is deeply offensive and hurtful. The fact that I even thought that I could defend it itself showed extraordinarily bad judgment. For that I apologize….My lapse of judgment has hurt my colleagues in Science, the hundreds of people who trusted me to work with them closely during this pandemic, the team at ‘The Daily’ that turned to me during this frightening year, and the whole institution, which put its confidence in me and expected better.”
Mea culpa! Mea maxima culpa!
The cancel culture mob seems set on demonizing allegedly offensive speech regardless of intent or context.
John Schnatter, the founder of Papa John’s, got forced out of his own company in 2018 after describing acts of racist violence during a role-playing exercise designed to increase workplace sensitivity. Netflix fired Chief Communications Officer Jonathan Friedland for using the n-word — in a company meeting about what words to avoid! Chipotle fired 23-year-old employee Dominique Moran over a viral video of her warning two black customers, “You gotta pay ’cause you never have money when you come in.” As it turned out, one of those customers had made videos of himself dining and dashing from restaurants. Chipotle offered Moran her job back, but she declined.
The University of Southern California (USC) even suspended a man from his job after he said a word that sounded like a racial slur but was not.
Unfortunately, the Times has caved to employee pressure before, most notably in the case of opinion editor James Bennet, who resigned amid backlash after he agreed to publish Sen. Tom Cotton’s (R-Ark.) op-ed calling for law and order amid violent riots over the summer. Bennet had been on the shortlist for top management before Times staff claimed that his approval of Cotton’s op-ed somehow made them “unsafe.”
Where are the adults in the room at America’s newspaper of record?
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.