Dean Baquet, Joe Kahn, Racist Slurs, Twitter and Mao: on Passing the Torch at The New York Times

Since people have been sending me articles about the recent New York Times transition — and commenting, sometimes angrily, on the references to me in them, here’s what I think:

Dean Baquet

I still like Dean, though of course I’m disappointed at how things worked out.

I have no proof — and Dean is too good a soldier to say so — but I assume he was ordered to force me out. We’ve known each other for decades, and he knows I’m no racist.

He said so twice in the days before asking me to resign, and reassured the Pulitzer committee I was not one. He publicly walked back his “we do not tolerate racist language, regardless of intent” remark.

The Times has done everything short of admitting it erred. It still occasionally uses the very word that got me ousted, a word it was using in the same month in 2019 I uttered it in Peru. It didn’t punish Bret Stephens for his leaked column calling its decision hypocritical. It canceled the student trips program. It hired John McWhorter as a columnist even though he had trashed the decision to oust me and called it “contemptible.”

The Times has not publicly disputed even one of the 20,000 words I published March 1, 2021, describing what really happened in Peru and during the internal investigations.

Why? Because it knows they’re true. And because of corporate cowardice. The company instantly corrects its reporters’ errors, but it takes decades to admit blunders by its owners (such as ignoring the Holocaust.)

When I started in 1976, The Times was run by a former Marine who cared more about the mission — journalism — than about policing the personalities of his troops. Now it’s run by his grandson, a Brown graduate who believes in safe spaces and race-based capitalization. It once dealt calmly with criticism. Now it panics — even over a tabloid piece based on anonymous quotes from very naive teenagers. It hunts for someone to flog into the street, or uses threats to extract apologies it can issue with a groveling press release. (See below.)

To my mind, that shift began during the Jayson Blair/Judy Miller/Rick Bragg fiascos. The company became addicted to self-mortification. A weekly public editor column meant someone had to be hung out to dry every week, guilty or not.

The company has also hired more and more young elitists who sneer at average Americans. And who get their way by running to the teacher and weeping “I feel unsafe!” I found that tactic baffling when it was used against James Bennet in 2020. Who chooses journalism with an expectation of safety? It’s an incredibly exciting life; it’s not always a safe one — you may be sent to cover wars. I loved it.

All that aside, Dean was mostly an excellent executive editor. We did amazing work under his stewardship. We also mostly avoided the internal turmoils of the Abe, Howell and (to a lesser degree) Jill regencies, because Dean did listen to his troops and didn’t disdain the Guild.

In the 1980’s, the Times regularly made those lists of “Fifty Best Companies to Work For.” It was generous to employees; they responded with loyalty. Now it relies on consultants, surveys, sensitivity training, CorpComm and HR nimrods and union-busting lawyers. Middle managers get bonuses; front-line journos get 2 percent raises. It tolerates serious conflicts of interest, such as letting management negotiators discipline union negotiators. It rewards backstabbers. Result: an internal culture that can be quite poisonous.

And it never makes those lists any more.

Joe Kahn

I don’t know Joe. I only remember one conversation with him, which was years ago when the Times was contemplating a series on the excessive power of billionaires. He asked what I thought of Bill Gates. I said that it was true that, as some people complained, the Gates Foundation was the 600-pound gorilla in the global health room. But what dominated the room before, I said, was a 600-pound three-toed sloth called the W.H.O. I mostly agreed, I said, with the Foundation’s goals for vaccines, mother-child health, polio and other issues, Gates got things done, and, like a journalist, he would drag himself to dusty, sometimes dangerous places like northern Nigeria to see them done. (NB: this was before the W.H.O. was led by Tedros, whom I admire. And long before news emerged of the Gates’ marital issues, which I was ignorant of.)

But if Joe believes — as he just told New York magazine — that the recent abrupt departures “didn’t quite feel like a ‘Maoist struggle session’ … There was nobody being forced into self-confession or that sort of thing,” then Joe is either dissembling, or badly out of touch with how his own newsroom operates.

The Times absolutely does extort confessions from its employees. They aren’t extracted by Chairman Mao himself, of course; he maintains deniability. They are extracted by the HR staff, the legal staff, and by editors seeking to please a different Chairman. In Part Two of my March 1, 2021 Medium posts, I described two such sessions in detail. On Thursday Jan 28, when the Daily Beast article attacking me was about to be printed, I was ordered by a company lawyer to not rebut its lies point-by-point and to issue only a one-sentence apology for my “offensive remarks.” Three drafts were suggested by my boss and a corporate communications person. I refused all three because they all sounded as if I was confessing to the Beast’s claims that I had made “wildly offensive and racist comments.” On Friday, as staff outrage mounted because the Times put out the word that “Donald refused to apologize,” I was again pressured, this time by two editors, to write an apology. I was told that not only was my job on the line, and my Chancellor Award, and my Pulitzer bid — but that I might be saving Dean’s job too. We fought for six hours and I finally gave in to what, if I remember correctly, was the seventh draft. I was frustrated because it still didn’t rebut the Beast’s lies and it had an abject tone, but I did give in, which I regret. Obviously, I didn’t know then what would happen the following Monday, which I also described. I was told by my boss that if I did not resign voluntarily, I would be taken off the Covid pandemic story and The Daily. I was warned by union friends that I would be watched for something to justify firing me.

It wasn’t classic Mao. No dunce cap, no canes, no firing squad. But it is how the Times does things. Not by the execs — but by their minions.

In my opinion, the Times under Joe Kahn should get out of the public “mea culpa” business and handle criticism the same way we’ve handled corrections for a century: Look into the complaint. Fix the errors. And then just shut up.

Twitter

Dean’s recent admonition to staffers to cut back on Twitter and stop publicly trashing each other made me sigh. Years ago, when Facebook and Twitter were new, the Times repeatedly pressured us to open accounts and tweet often. I refused, knowing that if I had a way to reach into my pocket after two beers and tell the world what I really thought, I would get myself fired. I was labeled “difficult.” (We were in the middle of very bitter labor talks then, and I was a union negotiator, so I had good reason to think I might say something stupid, and not just about some virus.)

“Used a Racial Slur”

I have repeatedly asked The New York Times to stop printing sentences saying I left the paper after I “used a racial slur.” The average reader seeing that assumes I viciously insulted someone. The Times knows — and has known since 2019 — that I did not; I asked if a student suspended for using a proscribed word had actually insulted a black classmate or had just been quoting a book title or singing a rap number.

No other publication chooses this “used a racial slur” phrasing. New York magazine this week, for example, said I “was pushed out for an incident that had occurred years prior in which he quoted the N-word while discussing an anecdote…”

By repeatedly employing that “used…” phrase, the Times is violating its own fairness standards. It’s also libeling me. After each of my requests — on this story last June about the Pulitzers and this week’s story about Joe Kahn’s ascension, they slightly softened the phrasing — but not enough in the second case, I think. (And they did so without adding a note saying they had changed the story after publication, which is in itself a violation of Times rules.)

But they have repeatedly refused my requests to change the headlines or wording on this story about the Daily Beast article, this story about my departure, or this story about my March 1 opus. Infuriatingly, those stories are at the top of Google searches for my name. Many of my former colleagues have expressed anger about this on the Times alumni page, and I’m grateful to them.

I don’t think the Times would do this if I were someone else, if I were not an ex-Timesman. Journalists have a peculiar contempt for their own kind, and it’s as if the editors think they are still my bosses and can treat me with less fairness than they would an outsider.

After I told my side of the story on Medium last year, I tried to put the whole mess behind me. I turned down interview requests, I’ve since written only about the pandemic. I loved writing for the Times (even if I bridled at how it was managed) and I didn’t want to become a professional Times-basher or cancel-culture warrior. I’m a good science reporter, and I wanted to be remembered for that. But the Times keeps bashing me.

I’m not a litigious person. I like to start by asking politely. I’m also not rich enough to pay for a phalanx of lawyers, as the Times can. But the Times ought to follow its own rules on libel, accuracy and fairness.

New York Times, 1976–2021. Last beat: lead reporter on pandemic. 2020 Chancellor Award; 2021 NYT Pulitzer donaldgmcneiljr1954@gmail.com

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Donald G. McNeil Jr.

Donald G. McNeil Jr.

New York Times, 1976–2021. Last beat: lead reporter on pandemic. 2020 Chancellor Award; 2021 NYT Pulitzer donaldgmcneiljr1954@gmail.com

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