In a move that hearkened back to the days of newspaper wars, the New York Post published a spiked op-ed by New York Times columnist Bret Stephens that criticized how the paper handled the dismissal of longtime science reporter Donald McNeil Jr., after he was accused of making a racial slur while leading a trip for high schoolers in Peru that was organized by the Times. The Post obtained a leaked copy which didn’t come from Stephens.
What was McNeils’s offense? He used the n-word in answering a student’s question about another student who used the slur. After an investigation and much discussion executive editor, Dean Baquet, who is Black, decided that while what McNeil did was wrong and offensive he deserved a second chance given the circumstances. However, after 150 staffers complained loudly to Baquet he reversed course and decided that McNeil’s 45-year career at the Times was over.
In his apology to the Times staff, McNeil admitted to a lapse in judgment.
“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. I should not have done that.”
What bothered Stephens was that in the email that he and managing editor Joe Kahn sent to the staff announcing McNeil’s dismissal they wrote “We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent,” just one day after Baquet told staffers that “Of course intent matters.”
“Every serious moral philosophy, every decent legal system and every ethical organization cares deeply about intention,” Stephens wrote. “It is the difference between murder and manslaughter. It is an aggravating or extenuating factor in judicial settings. It is a cardinal consideration in pardons… It’s an elementary aspect of parenting, friendship, courtship and marriage.”
“A hallmark of injustice is indifference to intention. Most of what is cruel, intolerant, stupid and misjudged in life stems from that indifference. Read accounts about life in repressive societies — I’d recommend Vaclav Havel’s “Power of the Powerless” and Nien Cheng’s “Life and Death in Shanghai” — and what strikes you first is how deeply the regimes care about outward conformity, and how little for personal intention,” he continued.
Stephens pointed out that in the past that the Times printed former Republican strategist Lee Atwater’s use of the n-word at least seven times, but in context and the intent of explaining a specific political point, but the same rules wound up not applying to McNeil.
He concludes. “We are living in a period of competing moral certitudes, of people who are awfully sure they’re right and fully prepared to be awful about it. Hence the culture of cancellations, firings, public humiliations and increasingly unforgiving judgments. The role of good journalism should be to lead us out of this dark defile. Last week, we went deeper into it.”
The Times has admitted that they handled the McNeil situation “ham-handedly,” which could also be said of the spiking of Stephens’s op-ed.