New York Times staffers on Wednesday sent a letter to the paper’s top bosses criticizing their handling of complaints that star journalist Donald McNeil Jr. used racist language while on a Times-sponsored student trip.
As The Daily Beast reported last week, McNeil, a veteran Times reporter who has emerged as one of the paper’s most high-profile reporters, was accused of making racist remarks while serving as a representative on a 2019 educational trip to Peru alongside high-school students. After the trip, multiple students left reviews alleging the reporter used the “n-word” while on the trip. Three other participants also alleged that he made racist comments and used stereotypes about Black teenagers.
In the Wednesday afternoon letter, signed by more than 150 staffers and addressed to executive editor Dean Baquet along with other top members of the Times masthead, employees expressed feeling “deeply disturbed” by the paper’s handling of the allegations, which thus far included a statement declaring McNeil had been “disciplined.”
Furthermore, the signees called upon newspaper brass to conduct further investigation of the complaints against McNeil; an apology from McNeil to the students and their parents, tour staffers, and his fellow Times colleagues.
“We, his colleagues, feel disrespected by his actions,” the letter said. “The company has a responsibility to take that experience seriously.”
In a note to staff following last week’s article, Baquet said that upon hearing the complaints, he was outraged and initially intended to fire McNeil. But while the top editor acknowledged that the award-winning science reporter had made offensive comments, he said that an investigation by the paper found the reporter did not act in a hateful manner.
“I authorized an investigation and concluded his remarks were offensive and that he showed extremely poor judgment, but it did not appear to me that his intentions were hateful or malicious,” Baquet wrote.
But the company’s conclusion about McNeil’s intent was “irrelevant,” the irate staffers wrote in the letter, adding that the paper’s own harassment training “makes clear that what matters is how an act makes the victims feel; Mr. McNeil’s victims weren’t shy about decrying his conduct on the trip.”
Signees called on the paper to study how racial biases affect pitches, editing, and sourcing, and reiterated a commitment to the paper’s existing non-discrimination and anti-harassment policies.
The letter also called on the Times to reinvestigate the 2019 trip as well as “any newly surfaced complaints,” noting that in the days since The Daily Beast’s article, current and former staffers have also said that McNeil had shown “bias against people of color in his work and in interactions with colleagues over a period of years.”
“Our community is outraged and in pain,” the signees wrote. “Despite The Times’s seeming commitment to diversity and inclusion, we have given a prominent platform—a critical beat covering a pandemic disproportionately affecting people of color—to someone who chose to use language that is offensive and unacceptable by any newsroom’s standards. He did so while acting as a representative for The Times, in front of high school students.”
In a newsroom note to all Times staff sent Wednesday night, Baquet, publisher A.G. Sulzberger, and Chief Executive Meredith Kopit Levien said they welcomed the letter.
“We appreciate the spirit in which it was offered and we largely agree with the message,” they wrote.
The note went on to state that “teams of people have been working on all the specific issues raised in the letter, as well as other related issues” and promised the newsroom that they “will see the results.”
The letter on Wednesday came as Times brass have attempted to grapple with internal outrage over McNeil’s alleged comments.
Baquet and Carolyn Ryan, the assistant managing editor, held a meeting on Friday with Times journalists—including prominent Black reporters such as Nikole Hannah-Jones—to try and explain their handling of McNeil’s behavior. While some attendees expressed displeasure at the paper’s handling of the complaints against McNeil, others said Baquet appeared to be taking staff concerns seriously.
“I do honestly think Dean has taken this to heart and he has taken this very seriously and I really appreciate it,” reporter John Eligon, who covers race for the Times and was at the meeting, told The Daily Beast. “My message to management was can we find a better way when things happen that we can be more transparent.”