New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet has walked back a staff-wide email he sent last week to explain the ouster of reporter Donald McNeil Jr., who used the n-word on a 2019 Times trip to Peru for high school students.
“We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent,” Baquet wrote in a staff-wide email announcing McNeil’s departure. Social media critics quickly pointed out that the Times had printed the n-word in various contexts in the months leading up to McNeil’s departure.
“In our zeal to make a powerful statement about our workplace culture we ham-handedly said something that some of you rightly saw as threatening our journalism. It was an oversimplification of one of the most difficult issues in American life,” Baquet said in a staff meeting on Thursday, according to Times media reporter Ben Smith. “It was a deadline mistake, and I regret it. Of course intent matters when we’re talking about language and journalism.”
The reversal came after Times columnist Bret Stephens told colleagues that publisher A.G. Sulzberger “spiked” his Monday column on the debacle, in which Stephens reportedly argued that Baquet’s standard would set a dangerous precedent. Times’ opinion editor Kathleen Kingsbury later told the Daily Beast that it was ultimately her decision to block Stephen’s column.
“I have an especially high bar of running any column that could reflect badly on a colleague and I didn’t feel that this piece rose to that level,” she said. A Times spokesperson declined to comment.
The controversy began in January after the Daily Beast reported that McNeil “made wildly offensive and racist comments while leading a Times student trip” and was subsequently reprimanded by the paper’s brass in September 2019.
“I authorized an investigation and concluded his remarks were offensive and that he showed extremely poor judgment, but it did not appear to me that his intentions were hateful or malicious,” Baquet told his newsroom following the article.
But after an angry letter signed by 150 Times staffers demanded a “renewed investigation,” McNeil apologized and resigned under pressure.
“On a 2019 New York Times trip to Peru for high school students, I 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,” McNeil wrote. “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.”
Six of the 20 students who attended the trip spoke to the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple and “largely confirmed” the account, saying that “he uttered the epithet in a way that they perceived as casual, unnecessary or even gratuitous.” One said that McNeil was “triggering” with comments regarding African Americans, but that “McNeil’s opinions didn’t disparage African Americans.”
While Baquet and Managing Editor Joseph Kahn told staff that “[w]e do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent” in their email on McNeil’s departure, some outlets, including the Washington Free Beacon, immediately noted that the Times itself and some of its star reporters have used the word in print and in public.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, who led the Times’ 1619 project, responded to the Free Beacon’s request for comment by doxxing the reporter. She has also used the n-word repeatedly on Twitter, most recently on Friday morning.
Eileen Murphy, a senior vice president of communications for the Times, told National Review that “the inclusion of the phone number was inadvertent and when it was brought to Nikole’s attention, she deleted it” — though Twitter messages indicate that Hannah-Jones was aware 72 hours before deleting the tweet in question.