A top New York Times columnist claims the paper’s publisher shelved his opinion column defending Donald McNeil, the journalist who recently left the paper after reports emerged that he said a racial slur while on a trip chaperoning high-school students.
Earlier this month, McNeil, a top science reporter, exited the Times after The Daily Beast reported weeks before that multiple students on the 2019 Times-sponsored trip to Peru complained he said the “n-word” and made other remarks they perceived as racist and offensive.
The news of those complaints, along with his eventual ouster, kicked off an internal firestorm at the paper, dividing much of the newsroom and raising questions about Times brass’ handling of the ordeal.
In an internal email obtained by The Daily Beast on Thursday, Stephens, a conservative columnist, claimed he wrote a column defending McNeil—but that it was put on ice by the Times’ publisher. His claim was first reported by NBC’s Dylan Byers.
“If you’re wondering why it wasn’t in the paper, it’s because AG Sulzberger spiked it,” he wrote atop the email.
Tentatively titled “Regardless of Intent,” the column draft appeared to zero in on executive editor Dean Baquet’s statements about McNeil. A copy of the column obtained and published by the New York Post late Thursday showed Stephens singling out Baquet and accusing The Times’ of hypocrisy, writing that “The Times has never previously been shy about citing racial slurs in order to explain a point.”
Initially, the top editor defended McNeil, noting that the paper found no malicious or hateful intent in his remarks. More than 150 staffers sent an “outraged” email to the paper’s bosses, at one point telling Baquet that intent is “irrelevant” in this case. And so, upon the reporter’s exit last Friday, the top editor wrote: “We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.” (Baquet walked it back slightly during a meeting on Thursday, saying: “Of course intent matters when we’re talking about language in journalism. Intent matters.”)
“Every serious moral philosophy, every decent legal system, and every ethical organization cares deeply about intention,” Stephens began his column draft. “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 (or at least it was until Donald Trump got in on the act). It’s an elementary aspect of parenting, friendship, courtship and marriage.”
The columnist added: “A hallmark of injustice is indifference to intention.”
When reached for comment, Stephens said, “I wouldn’t even speak to The Daily Beast ever. Bye.”
Kathleen Kingsbury, editor of the Times’ opinion section, disputed Stephens’ account, telling The Daily Beast that while she consulted with Sulzberger about the column, it was ultimately her decision to nix it.
“I have an especially high bar of running any column that could reflect badly on a colleague and I didn’t feel that this piece rose to that level,” she said, noting that she believed Baquet was planning on correcting the record about the paper’s view on “intent.”
“Bret and I had a professional conversation to kill the column on Monday night and he expressed his disappointment and we moved on,” she said.
In the weeks since McNeil’s comments were first reported, The New York Times has been engulfed by internal “chaos” over the scandal.
McNeil originally faced private, internal discipline in 2019 for his conduct during the trip, The Daily Beast reported, but after his comments were made public, dozens of Times staffers wrote the letter to Sulzberger, Baquet, and the paper’s top editors demanding an apology and further investigation into the trip. At one meeting earlier this month, Pulitzer Prize-winning Times staffer Nikole Hannah-Jones told Baquet and assistant managing editor Carolyn Ryan that she planned on personally calling the parents and students on the trip to find out more about McNeil's comments.
McNeil apologized several days later and announced that he was leaving the paper. But he explained that when he used the “n-word,” he was engaged in a discussion with a student who asked whether a classmate should have been suspended for using the racial slur.
“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,” McNeil wrote in the Friday email shared with Times staff. “I should not have done that. Originally, I thought the context in which I used this ugly word could be defended.”
McNeil’s departure also sparked external backlash, with some pundits who are critical of “cancel culture” arguing that because the reporter did not use the word disparagingly, he should not have been ostracized for using it in a discussion. “Describing a Slur Is Not the Same as Using It,” headlined a column from New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait.
Expanding upon The Daily Beast’s original report, The Washington Post reported that students confirmed McNeil’s account of the “n-word” use, but said he deployed it in a way that they felt was “casual” and “gratuitous.” Additionally, the participants alleged, the reporter was dismissive of the existence of concepts like cultural appropriation and white supremacy; and suggested the high incarceration rate for Black Americans is the responsibility of those who commit the crimes and not the result of a racist criminal justice system.