Former NY Times Reporter Donald McNeil Slams the Paper in Four-Part Post About His Departure Following Racism Allegations


Don McNeil Donald McNeil

Former New York Times science and health reporter Donald McNeil has released his version of the events that led up to his departure from the newspaper in a fourpart post on Medium, pushing back against the allegations against him, cataloging a variety of grievances against the Times, and implying that he had been unfairly disciplined by Times management, perhaps because of his actions during union contract negotiations.

The Daily Beast reported in January that McNeil, as a Times representative on a 2019 trip with students to Peru, was accused of using racist language, making sexist remarks, not respecting local customs, and stereotyping Black teenagers while on the trip.

After the Beast report, McNeil, who has led the Times‘ coverage of the coronavirus pandemic, said he had used the n-word in a descriptive context, not as an insult. He has previously denied the bulk of the other allegations, and provided extensive details about the conversations and exchanges at issue throughout the Medium post.

McNeil defends himself against allegations that he is racist, pointing to his own experience as a reporter as proof.

“Am I a racist?” McNeil writes. “I don’t think so – after working in 60 countries over 25 years, I think I’m pretty good at judging people as individuals. But ‘am I a racist?’ is actually a harder question to answer about yourself than some self-righteous people think.”

“I don’t know anybody who hasn’t, at some point, lowered their voice, looked around to see who was listening, and then said something unflattering about some ‘other’ – whether based on race or religion or sexual orientation or whatever,” McNeil adds. “That includes people I love … We all sometimes say stupid things – or things we thought were funny but weren’t. What particularly baffled me was that anyone would look at my work and conclude that I would have chosen my beat if I were a racist, and could or what have survived on it that long.”

“The portrait the Daily Beast paints of a dyspeptic old man abusing students by spouting ‘wildly racist and offensive comments’ is inaccurate,” McNeil writes toward the end of his post. “I was trying to engage them in a serious conversation that opened their eyes. Which is what, as a Times Expert, I had been assigned to do.”

McNeil also criticized the Times for the way it initially responded to the Beast in January, when it asked the Times for comment on its forthcoming story on McNeil.

“Charlotte [Behrendt] instructed me to say nothing in reply, to not take any reporters’ phone calls, to just let Corporate Communications handle it,” McNeil says on Medium. He writes that he was asked to apologize, and prepared what he called in the Medium piece an explanation, not an apology – but maintained that the Times mishandled the situation.

“Since this episode began, I have been willing to apologize for any actual offense I’d given – but not to agree to the Beast’s characterization of me, which I felt made me sound like a drunken racist roaring around Peru insulting everyone in sight,” McNeil writes. “If the Times had not panicked and I had been allowed to send some version of that, perhaps the Beast would have rewritten or even spiked its story. Almost undoubtedly, the reaction inside the Times itself would have been different.”

McNeil does acknowledge that the one response he did offer – a reply to a Washington Post inquiry that said “Don’t believe everything you read” – did not go as McNeil intended. “I meant it as a flip way to indicate: ‘I can’t comment but the Beast story is wrong.’ It now seems clear that the Post reporter read it as ‘Don’t believe the Times press release,” McNeil explains. (The Beast story included a statement from the Times that it had investigated the complaints against McNeil and disciplined him for “statements and language that had been inappropriate and inconsistent with our values.”)

McNeil also links disciplinary actions taken against him over the years to 2010 union negotiations between McNeil and the Times. McNeil writes that one of the lawyers for the Times negotiating team was Bernard Plum, the “husband or live-in companion” of Charlotte Behrendt, the Times’ associate managing editor for employee relations. Contract negotiations were contentious; McNeil was quoted as saying that Plum and another representative had “acted like belligerent idiots,” and said he believes he was later “instrumental in getting Bernie [Plum] removed as the Times representative.”

According to McNeil, this history of tough negotiations created a conflict of interest when he was later brought before Behrendt for possible disciplinary actions.

“Since [2010], it has felt as if I’m constantly getting in trouble,” McNeil writes. “[A]fter the 2010-2012 [union] talks, every misstep I made seemed to lead to formal discipline.”

In 2015, when McNeil was facing formal discipline for an incident that arose from a “sarcastic and unnecessarily rude” response by McNeil to a reader who complained about a headline on one of McNeil’s stories, he objected to appearing before Behrendt and labor relations director Chris Biegner, alleging a conflict of interest from the guild contract negotiations. McNeil says his objection was ignored, and he was eventually docked one week’s pay.

When he faced discipline in 2019 over the Peru trip, McNeil said he raised the same objection to facing Behrendt with executive editor Dean Baquet, but was ignored. McNeil was ultimately disciplined for his language, and a disciplinary letter was added to his file.

In the end, McNeil may have predicted his own departure from the Times at the end of 2020 when, according to his own recounting, he said the following during a newsroom-wide Zoom call with deputy managing editor Carolyn Ryan about covering the coronavirus pandemic. After describing what it was like to be an early voice of caution about the coronavirus – “I started off feeling The Crazy Man, saying ‘This is it, it’s The Big One, it’s gonna be a pandemic.’ At first, no one believed me.” – he went on to say this:

“‘Recently,’ I told Carolyn, ‘I’ve been feeling a little like a Confederate Statue. I think people are getting a little sick of me and are waiting for me to make a mistake so they can pull me down and trample me.’”

“Wow – was I right,” McNeil writes on Medium. “I must be pretty good at this prophecy stuff.”

When asked for comment on McNeil’s Medium post, the Times did not respond.

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