After asking veteran science reporter Donald McNeil for his resignation, New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet repeatedly cast the decision as an effort to address the hurt feelings of rank-and-file employees, rather than justifying the ouster on the merits of the 45-year veteran’s alleged wrongdoings.
The conversation took place after the Daily Beast published an article recounting a 2019 trip to Peru that McNeil took with high school students, some of whom had been offended by some of McNeil’s remarks, including his use of the n-word, and had complained to the Times.
McNeil, who resigned from the Times despite the paper nominating his work on COVID-19 for a Pulitzer, recounted the play-by-play in a four-part series on the self-publishing platform Medium. He said that he had drafted a lengthy comment to the Daily Beast, explaining that he had uttered the n-word in the context of asking a clarifying question about its use by one of the student’s classmates, but that the Times communications department “rejected my words.”
“As I read the words now, it is not an apology, it is an explanation. But I had already said I was ready to apologize for saying the word, although I wanted to specify that I had not used it in a ‘wildly racist and offensive way,’” McNeil writes, adding that he believes the paper “panicked” over the story — which “perhaps the Beast would have rewritten or even spiked” if McNeil had initially responded.
After a back-and-forth, McNeil refused to comment to the Daily Beast and the story was published — leading to an uproar at the Times. The next day, Baquet called McNeil to tell him “the staff was very upset,” and asked him to draft an apology. McNeil explained that he was happy to apologize, but “wanted to explain that the article was full of false accusations.”
McNeil then drafted the apology with Times’ Science editor Celia Dugger and sent it to Baquet, who never responded. Baquet then called two days later to suggest McNeil resign.
“Donald, I know you,” Baquet told McNeil, according to his account. “I know you’re not a racist. We’re going ahead with your Pulitzer. We’re writing to the board telling them we looked into this two years ago. But Donald, you’ve lost the newsroom. People are hurt. People are saying they won’t work with you because you didn’t apologize.”
When McNeil pushed back, saying that the Times had already looked into the matter and disciplined him, Baquet reiterated that “you’ve lost the newsroom. People won’t work with you.” Times deputy managing editor Carolyn Ryan, who was also on the call, added that “Donald, there are other complaints that you made people uncomfortable. X, Y and Z.”
McNeil writes that when he asked what said complaints were, neither Baquet nor Ryan told him, though he later learned that the two had met with black reporters at the Times and asked that anyone who “had a problem with Donald” should tell them.
“Let me give you an alternative view of who’s ‘lost the newsroom,’” McNeil recalled saying to the two editors. “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.”
He also warned Baquet and Ryan that “you’re going to lose everybody over age 40 at the paper, all the grownups” if he was fired. “Especially once they realize how innocuous what I really said was and that you didn’t find it a firing offense in 2019,” McNeil stated.
After the phone call, McNeil said he hired a lawyer and told Dugger, his editor, that “I wouldn’t be able to talk to her again, or do any reporting or writing for her until this was resolved.”
McNeil said that Dugger responded by telling him the leadership at the Times had already explained the situation to her.
“They said that, if you refused to leave voluntarily, you wouldn’t be the lead pandemic reporter any more,” Dugger reportedly told McNeil. “No more big front-page stories. No more appearances on The Daily.”
While being internally investigated by the Times about the Peru trip in 2019, McNeil said he “flinched a little” when the paper’s employee relations manager Charlotte Behrendt used the n-word in recounting McNeil’s actions during a meeting that he attended with Bill Baker, the Times union chair. “[M]ostly because Bill, who was sitting next to me, is black,” McNeil said.
The Times issued a statement following McNeil’s publishing of his account, saying “it became clear that Donald had not learned from his prior mistakes and could no longer effectively work in our newsroom.”
— ErikWemple (@ErikWemple) March 1, 2021
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated with additional information.