Former New York Times reporter Donald McNeil, who was forced out earlier this year for using the n-word in a conversation, describes the paper’s newsroom atmosphere as a tense and accusatory one that he compares to the communist dictatorship in North Korea.
In the latest installments of his telling of the story on the website Medium, Mr. McNeil outlined what happened on a 2019 Times-sponsored trip to Peru that led to his unwilling resignation from the paper. He said top Times editors often employed the n-word when discussing its appropriateness in stories.
The abrupt severing of Mr. McNeil after decades of employment at The Times became, to some, another example of the left-wing’s ‘cancel culture’ that is sweeping the nation. The McNeil case, they say, shows how the left’s activists impose a radical orthodoxy on workplaces and across social media.
The Times has been particularly hard-hit with allegations of these types of purges, including the ouster of its editorial page editor and the departure of another long-time editor to appease young, “woke” employees’ ideas about what news is fit to print there.
“From the very beginning I misread the situation,” Mr. McNeil acknowledges in his two new stories on Medium.
He said he was aware The Times had become a poisonous environment even before his world began to unravel with a query from a Daily Beast reporter about Mr. McNeil using the n-word while mentoring a pricey student trip to Peru.
“I used to love working here,” he wrote in an internal email during The Times’ investigation of his conduct on the trip. “Now I’m so discouraged. Such a mean, spiteful, vengeful place where everyone is looking over his/her shoulder.”
Peppered with questions from the students on the Peru trip, Mr. McNeil said he engaged with them on an intellectual level. He said they discussed cultural norms he had seen in his travels around the world and he dismissed the idea that a student should have been suspended for once using the n-word in a non-racist manner in a video.
Afterward, the students, who were from exclusive prep schools and had paid more than $6,000 each for the trip, complained about Mr. McNeil.
In his new disclosure, Mr. McNeil shared the internal workplace correspondence that followed. He was upset that any investigation was undertaken.
“I’m outraged,” he wrote to a retired Times editor involved with the trips. “I did EVERYTHING according to the contract: I delivered my three lectures, I joined all meals and activities, I ‘connected with’ and ‘gave feedback to’ students and collaborated with the leaders.
“Also, as required, I didn’t have a drink the whole week,” he wrote.
Charlotte Behrendt, the paper’s associate managing editor for employee relations, “makes the Times newsroom more like North Korea every day,” he wrote.
Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for The Times, responded this way: “We support Donald’s right to have his say.”
She said the newspaper would not comment further.
As Mr. McNeil had been disciplined internally following the trip for his alleged insensitivity, he initially brushed aside a Daily Beast query, though he thought the left-leaning news outlet falsely portrayed his remarks on the trip as “wildly offensive and racist.”
However, Times executives treated the query and the resurrection of accusations against Mr. McNeil as a five-alarm fire, he writes, going to “full freakout message-control mode.”
The paper wanted Mr. McNeil to make what he considered a groveling apology for comments that he thought were perfectly reasonable in the context they were made. He declined to apologize.
What’s more, he said, the n-word is not uncommon at The Times.
“This makes it sound like I targeted someone with a racial slur. I did not,” he wrote Times executives at the time. “Charlotte used the same word exactly the same way when asking me if I had used the word. We use the word in The Times in discussions of whether or not the word can be used.”
After providing links, Mr. McNeil said, “I have heard executive editors use the word in that context.”
Eventually, however, The Times’ Executive Editor Dean Baquet told Mr. McNeil he “had lost the newsroom,” and that other Times employees would not work with him.
Mr. McNeil found that, too, to be outrageous, given Times employees traditionally do not pick and choose with whom they will work on projects, he said.
“If you fire me over this you’re going to lose everybody over 40 at the paper,” Mr. McNeil said he told Mr. Baquet. “All the grownups.”
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