The veteran New York Times reporter who resigned following reports that he said the “n-word” during a 2019 trip with students has privately dismissed the high-schoolers’ claims in an email obtained and reviewed by The Daily Beast.
“I’m amazed at what's happening. I feel like I’m facing students ‘recovered memories’ from two years ago,” Donald McNeil Jr. wrote in the email sent this week to close friends. “And other papers are eating it up. I said ‘racism is over?’ Huh?”
He continued: “I said ‘ghetto’? I don't think I’ve said ‘ghetto’ except 1. about Warsaw or 2. ironically, with air quotes, since Elvis released that ridiculous song in 1969. A teenager ‘corrected’ me and was upset that I failed to apologize to her/him? I don’t even know how to respond to that. Somehow I think I’d remember it if it had happened.”
The note was sent following a report from Times media columnist Ben Smith, in which Sophie Shepherd, a student on the 2019 trip, recounted several uncomfortable conversations she had with McNeil.
In one allegation, which McNeil referenced in his private email, Shepherd recalled the reporter saying, “It’s frustrating, because Black Americans keep blaming the system, but racism is over, there’s nothing against them anymore—they can get out of the ghetto if they want to.”
Earlier this month, McNeil, who’d become one of the most prominent American journalists covering the coronavirus pandemic, left the paper after The Daily Beast reported that several students complained that he made racist and offensive remarks, including saying the “n-word,” while accompanying the high-schoolers on a Times-sponsored trip to Peru.
In public, the longtime reporter has stayed largely mum on the allegations. But following his resignation, he joked in a note to friends and family that he “always knew my big mouth would get me into trouble one day.”
And in a separate email to Times colleagues announcing his departure, he directly apologized for saying the “n-word,” and attempted to explain how the word came up during a conversation about one student’s classmate who’d been suspended for a video in which she used 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,” McNeil wrote. “In asking the question, I used the slur itself. I should not have done that. Originally, I thought the context in which I used this ugly word could be defended.”
McNeil’s departure, and the way in which the paper wavered on how much “intent” matters in his case, set off a heated debate inside the paper. Numerous staffers called for additional investigation into the trip, while top editors attempted to assuage the concerns of prominent employees who were alarmed by the student complaints against McNeil, and by the paper’s initial handling of the ordeal.
And while current and former staffers at the Times have been hoping the media conversation around McNeil’s departure will eventually subside, the science writer has other plans.
In this week’s email, he told friends he has been “writing out long answers to everything” which he promised to have finished by March 1—the same day he is due to leave the Times.