Former New York Times Reporter Donald McNeil Responds To Controversy Over Remarks

Donald G. McNeil Jr., the veteran New York Times reporter who left the newspaper last month amid the controversy over his use of a racial slur, responded to accusations against him in a lengthy series of Medium posts today.

McNeil, who had been with the Times since 1976 and specialized in coverage of infectious diseases, had used the n-word during a discussion he was having with high school students on a Times-sponsored trip to Peru. In January, The Daily Beast informed McNeil that it was working on a story about his conduct during the trip, which also included claims of other offensive statements.

In the Medium posts, McNeil wrote that the Beast’s depiction of him was inaccurate, but he also faulted the Times for the way that it handled its response to the story.

McNeil wrote that he initially misread the situation and did not take it as seriously as Times editors and P.R. staffers. He provided his editor Celia Dugger with an email explaining the context of the remark: a student had asked him his opinion on the suspension of a classmate for using the word.

“I said ‘Did she actually call someone a “[offending word]”? Or was she quoting a rap song or quoting a book title or something?” McNeil wrote in the email.

McNeil, however, said that the Times was not willing to allow him to issue a lengthier explanation for his use of the word, as well as other remarks allegedly made during the trip. He wrote that he was willing to apologize, but said that he also wanted to counter claims made in the Beast story.

“As I read the words [from the email] now, it is not an apology, it is an explanation,” McNeil wrote. “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.'”

He added, “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.”

“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.”

The Daily Beast published the story, and the Times issued a statement  that read, “In 2019, Donald McNeil, Jr. participated in a Student Journeys as an expert. We subsequently became aware of complaints by some of the students on the trip concerning certain statements Donald had made during the trip. We conducted a thorough investigation and disciplined Donald for statements and language that had been inappropriate and inconsistent with our values. We found he had used bad judgment by repeating a racist slur in the context of a conversation about racist language. In addition, we apologized to the students who had participated in the trip.”

McNeil wrote that several days later, he told Dean Baquet, the editor of The New York Times, that he had written an apology and sent it to him. But Baquet asked him to also announce that he was leaving the paper. “You’ve lost the newsroom,” Baquet said, according to McNeil. “People won’t work with you.”

Eileen Murphy, a spokesperson for the Times, said following McNeil’s Medium posts, “We support Donald’s right to have his say.”

McNeil wrote that he “never dreamed that one of the two Peru trips I took — which to me were just blips in my life, something I’d done largely as a favor to a friend who needed experts to make the trips sell — would sink my Times career.”

McNeil wrote that the story of what he said that night on the Peru trip “has received such a ridiculously disproportionate amount of attention from the American media.”

In the final paragraphs of the Medium posts, McNeil wrote, “Obviously, I badly misjudged my audience in Peru that year. I thought I was generally arguing in favor of open-mindedness and tolerance — but it clearly didn’t come across that way. And my bristliness makes me an imperfect pedagogue for sensitive teenagers. Although the students liked me in 2018, some of those in 2019 clearly detested me. I do not see why their complaints should have ended my career at the Times two years later. But they did.”

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