Former New York Times star reporter Donald McNeil, who was forced to leave the paper over a scandal about his use of a racial slur on a work trip, has broken his silence.
In a lengthy, at times defensive four-part essay posted to Medium, the former Times health and science reporter aired his responses to the complaints, first reported by The Daily Beast, that he made offensive comments while accompanying a group of students on a Times-led trip to Peru, including saying the “n-word.”
The essays, which ran to nearly 21,000 words, offer McNeil’s thoughts on everything from the Times editing process to his family history and voting habits. He even took issue with the way media columnists referred to him as a “veteran” or “star” reporter. But the majority of his writing attempted to correct the record of what he has previously and privately described as the faulty memories of the students who accompanied him on the trip and the quotes he said were taken out of context by them.
“Did I have perspectives to offer that they didn’t get at prep school? I think so,” he said. “Am I a racist? I don’t think so—after working in 60 countries over 25 years, I think I’m pretty good at judging people as individuals.”
Elsewhere, while recounting specific conversations he had with students on the excursion, McNeil suggested officials should have yanked him from the chats if he really was offending participants. “Nobody stopped me from talking,” he wrote. “No trip leader took me aside to say I’d been offensive.”
He further disputed the memories of a student who said she had to correct McNeil for using the “n-word” in one conversation. “Had a student tried to ‘correct’ me, I probably would have pointed out that I’m a Times reporter and we print the real grownup versions of bad words when we have to (or at least we did in 2019.),” he wrote in response. “I probably would have described the internal Times debate over Richard Pryor’s obit. But I believe I never did that because I don’t recall that conversation ever happening.“
He further denied ever making any comments about white privilege to students on the trip, and said that comments he made about blackface were “part of a discussion of cultural appropriation” in which he argued that “all cultures grow by adopting from others.”
Elsewhere, McNeil disputed the characterization of his statements printed in various outlets, including The Daily Beast, The Washington Post, Vanity Fair, and The New York Times.
Describing himself as a “jackal circled by jackals,” the longtime journalist lamented how the Times declined to allow him to respond to various inquiries—including from The Daily Beast—and refute some of the complaints against him.
“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,” he wrote. “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 admitted that he did not treat the situation seriously enough while the Times was reacting to a five-alarm fire. “From the very beginning, I misread the situation. I was blasé about the Beast email. The Times was in full freakout message-control mode.”
In another twist, McNeil revealed for the first time that his ex-wife, Suzanne Daley, a masthead editor for the Times’ international print edition, contacted him out of the blue to help manage the ever-growing crisis. “Suzanne told me that she had listened in on meetings that day and the situation was far more serious than I realized. There was so much anger that my job was in danger, Dean’s might be in danger. The ‘Chancellor people had called,’ implying that the prize might be withdrawn. My Pulitzer nominations could be dropped.”
But McNeil showed he has maintained his sense of humor throughout the scandal that has ended his illustrious career.
“One last thought: what’s happened to me has been called a ‘witch hunt.’ It isn’t. It’s a series of misunderstandings and blunders,” he wrote. “I may be the only living Times reporter who has actually covered a witch hunt—in Zimbabwe in 1997. They inevitably end worse for the accused. I’m at least getting my say.”
And he did a bit of shaking his rhetorical fists at kids these days.
“Some of today’s woke youth eager to ‘correct’ us greybeards have no idea how normal it once was in America to slip into racism. I went to an all-male and nearly all-white Jesuit high school. It was, and still is, a good school. But it was the kind of place where it was much safer, for example, to be known as a racist than as a homosexual,” he wrote, adding a personal memory from his childhood.
“One afternoon, in an unprovoked confrontation on a city bus with four public school students, I had my face slashed with a straight razor. I still have the scar. The next day, a classmate who had always ignored me—yes, a thug—offered to help me take revenge at random with baseball bats from his pickup truck. I walked away. If you don’t learn from your scars (I also have a tattoo from my second marriage) you don’t learn.”