NYTimes Peru N-Word, Part One: Introduction

On February 5 this year, one week after an article about me appeared in the Daily Beast, The New York Times announced that I would be leaving.

At my departure, I was the paper’s lead reporter on the Covid-19 pandemic. I had been at the Times since starting as a copy boy in 1976.

Since the Daily Beast wrote to the Times on Jan. 28 saying it intended to publish a story, I have not spoken in detail to any reporter. On the advice of my lawyer, I waited until my departure date, March 1, 2021.

March 1 having arrived, I will now tell my side of the story, in four parts:

  1. This Introduction
  2. What Happened on January 28?
  3. What Happened During the Investigation?
  4. What Happened in Peru?

I’m publishing my thoughts here on Medium because I know journalists.

We make America what it is — without a free press, democracy dies. But we’re still jackals. We can befriend you for years, and then bite off your arm just as you’re offering us a treat. We can’t help it. It’s the nature of the job.

At the highest levels, like Watergate, it’s about digging for the truth, no matter what corrupt government official it hurts. At the basest level, when even the crummiest scandal erupts, you have to repeat the accusation, even if you know it’s untrue or half-true, in order to explain the truth — no matter how much you may personally like the source you’re hurting.

That’s the game. I’m somewhat relieved to be out of it. But after 50 years, if you count writing for my high school magazine, I’ll probably never be able to shake the habits.

Since January 28, I’ve been a jackal circled by jackals. Since not every journalist gets quotes right, on the rare occasions in my life that I’ve answered journalists’ questions, I’ve tried to do so in writing. That way, either they get it right or I can prove I was misquoted.

Even just five words I foolishly sent in writing to a reporter came back to bite me. On Jan. 28, the day the Daily Beast story broke, I had been ordered to not speak to the Beast or return any phone calls from the press. I did not. Emails poured in asking for comment. To one from the Washington Post, I wrote back only: “Don’t believe everything you read.” It was meant to flippantly convey “I can’t comment but don’t believe the Daily Beast.” Instead, he interpreted it as “Don’t believe the Times press release.” That inflamed the situation.

I chose this route so I can control at least one part of the narrative: my own. If you submit to filtering by another journalist, you’re answering only his or her questions. When he writes, he chooses the bits that he thinks are important. And tiny shades of nuance can cast a whole story in a different light. Am I principled? Old-school? Blunt? Cranky? Or “the end of the asshole era” at the Times, as Vanity Fair let an anonymous source describe me? Was I speaking to innocent schoolchildren? Or to privileged prep schoolers burnishing their resumés? Am I a long-time science reporter? A veteran science reporter? A star reporter? A legendary reporter? During February, without having published a single article, I won battlefield promotions from “long-time” to “legendary” from a dozen reporters who described me — for their own purposes — without ever speaking to me.

Am I really an asshole? I don’t think so. Not most of the time. I’m someone who holds doors for people, schmoozes with anyone, shovels my neighbors’ sidewalks, occasionally buys lunch in the cafeteria for strangers who forget their credit cards, counsels colleagues in trouble with their editors, talks up the Guild to newbies, walks through the newsroom on flu shot day reminding everyone. I pass on story ideas, share my sources and don’t hog bylines. I eat — or ate — lunch at a roving cafeteria table nicknamed the Alte Kakers Table, made up of reporters and editors from many departments. We welcome everyone to sit down with us. Some young reporters do, and they get an earful of jokes, foreign correspondent yarns and Times gossip ancient and modern. We’re a little noisy, but we’re friendly.

Now, there is an exception: if you’re an editor and you write an error into my copy, I can definitely be an asshole. I’m one of the biggest non-fans of the New York Times editing process. Because we’re an “editor’s paper” rather than a “writer’s paper,” every editor feels entitled and even obligated to make changes. I’m the previously anonymous author of the words once quoted in an internal Times report: “Every story is a fire hydrant, and the hydrant is passed from dog to dog to dog. The dogs don’t change the nature of the hydrant. But they rarely improve it.”

That was later misinterpreted as an attack on copy editors. It never was. I’m a former copy editor and I know how thankless and high-pressure that job is. What fries my shorts and makes me an asshole is gratuitous changes and unnecessary shifting of paragraphs, especially when the editor hasn’t read the story carefully.

To give an example: an editor once went through a story of mine and changed all the references to vaccines to “drugs.”

I went over and said, “Are you kidding me? Do you have any idea what you’re doing? Vaccines and drugs are different. A vaccine is something you take to prevent illness. A drug is something you take when you’re already ill.”

He tried to push back.

“Well, they’re both medicines, aren’t they? I thought it was repetitive.”

“It was repetitive, so you decided to make it wrong? It’s under my byline. You’re making me look like an idiot. This is like taking a baseball writer’s story and changing all the home runs to touchdowns. Don’t you think someone will notice?”

So, yeah, I can be an asshole. If you’re an editor, and you made changes in a story of mine, and I lashed out at you like that, I’m very sorry. It wasn’t because of your race or sex or youth or anything else. You may have just been a set of initials in the margins of our editing software. That’s one part of me that’s not very nice, and I know it. If I did that to you, I apologize. And if you’ll tell me about it, I’ll apologize personally.

I’ll tell my story in three further parts:

What Happened on Jan. 28 and Thereafter?

What Happened during the August 2019 Times Investigation?

What Happened in Peru?

For accuracy’s sake, I will write mostly from email exchanges or, when I’m recounting conversations, from emails I wrote soon after them. My memories of what happened in Peru are based largely on long emails I wrote to my union rep during the 2019 investigation.

I’ve had this whole narrative vetted by two lawyers.

A look backwards:

On Dec. 3, 2020, almost two months before the Daily Beast story, I did a Zoom Q&A for the whole newsroom with deputy managing editor Carolyn Ryan about covering the pandemic. The last question she asked was “What has this year been like for you?”

What I remember answering is:

“It’s been a pretty wild rollercoaster. I started off feeling like The Crazy Man, saying “This is it, it’s The Big One, it’s gonna be a pandemic.’ At first, no one believed me. Then, by April, when much of what I’d predicted came true and I was unexpectedly a “character” on The Daily, I was The Dark Prophet. In October, as I glimpsed the vaccines on the horizon, I became The Dark Prophet With an Optimistic Streak.”

“Recently,” I told Carolyn, “I’ve been feeling a little like a Confederate Statue. I think people are getting a little sick of me and are waiting for me to make a mistake so they can pull me down and trample me.”

Wow — was I right. I must be pretty good at this prophecy stuff.

Except I never saw this coming. I’d expected an attack from the far right, since I’d suffered one in May after I said on Christiane Amanpour’s show that the American response to the epidemic had failed because of poor leadership. I’d suggested that C.D.C. director Robert Redfield resign, called Mike Pence a sycophant and said President Trump lacked a third-grade understanding of science. I was told off and ordered to stay off TV. A formal letter of reprimand went into my file. The liberal/moderate coverage was favorable. The right’s was not.

If you watch the video, you’ll probably realize that I didn’t go on Amanpour planning to denounce anyone. She asked why the American response was so poor, and I answered frankly, without thinking of the consequences. It might have gone unnoticed except the show was tweeting out every utterance live, and I think Erik Wemple of the Washington Post called The Times for comment. In any case, something triggered the discipline process — again. The ban on TV appearances was slowly lifted about four months later. I tried to be more careful.

I never dreamed that one of the two Peru trips I took — which to me were just blips in my life, something I’d done largely as a favor to a friend who needed experts to make the trips sell — would sink my Times career.

I’ve been asked many times: Who was the Daily Beast’s source? And why was it leaked now, just when you’re up for a Pulitzer?

The answer is: I have no idea. The story includes a quote from an internal Times email, so I must assume it leaked from inside. But you never know.

And why? I don’t know.

It’s been quite baffling and painful for me to have people assume I’m a racist and believe that I said the ridiculous things I’m accused of saying — that “racism is over,” that “white supremacy doesn’t exist,” or “white privilege doesn’t exist,” or that I defended the use of blackface or said horrible things about black teenagers in general.

I’m surprised by how quick some colleagues who barely know me were prepared to accept those accusations and even add more on a Times alumni Facebook page. Someone to whom I don’t think I’ve spoken since 1994 said “calling him only a racist is being nice.” An editor I happily worked side by side with in 1989 and have had brief but cordial chats with maybe once every ten years when we bump into each other on the street said I seemed “dismissive of people of color and their views” back then. Someone I thought I’d been very nice to when she left the paper attacked me for using the expression “third world” in a story that was, as always, approved by several Times editors.

As I read the first two, I had no idea what they were talking about. I still don’t. But if I said something that gave offense back then, I apologize now. As another editor pointed out on the same thread, I can be pretty dismissive…period. But it’s never racially based. I also say a lot of things to get a laugh. Some might give offense without my even realizing it. And I say things that are misunderstood. Just last week, I bemoaned to a friend the fix that “God and Adolph” had gotten me into. Only after I re-read it did I realize how that might be misread and quickly sent a follow-up: “I meant Adolph Ochs.”

My girlfriend thinks I have a high-functioning Asperger aspect to my personality — I’m empathic about suffering but I also very much misread audiences. A young Haitian-American colleague and friend who sat behind me for three years in Science news called me after the Beast story. I told him what I’d actually said in Peru. He said, “Donald, you sound exactly like my father. He would also say ‘You can’t dress like a thug to a job interview and expect to get the job.’ But from you, it sounds racist.” I said “How is ‘thug’ racist? What about Thug Life Records?” He said “It’s almost the equivalent of the n-word. Don’t you know about Marshawn Lynch?’’ I said: “He plays for Seattle?” I could hear him sigh. “No, Donald, let me explain…”

So — was I five decades older than the students in Peru and out of touch with their sensibilities? Absolutely.

Did I have perspectives to offer that they didn’t get at prep school? I think so.

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. But “am I a racist?” is actually a harder question to answer about yourself than some self-righteous people think. One of my college professors was J. Herman Blake, who was Huey Newton’s biographer and, informally, the “minister of education of the Black Panther Party.” I remember him apologizing to a woman student he had inadvertently offended, saying “We all have our racist and sexist bags we crawl into sometimes.” I agree. I don’t know anybody who hasn’t, at some point, lowered their voice, looked around to see who was listening, and then said something unflattering about some “other” — whether based on race or religion or sexual orientation or whatever. That includes people I love — my mother once told me she was in love with a Jewish guy before she met my father, but my grandfather was an anti-Semite so she couldn’t marry him. My grandfather wasn’t a brute or an unintelligent man — he was a real estate developer, so presumably he at least sometimes did business with Jews. But he was a Yale graduate of his generation, when anti-Semitism was common. We all sometimes say stupid things — or things we thought were funny but weren’t.

What particularly baffled me was that anyone would look at my work and conclude that I would have chosen my beat if I were a racist, and could or would have survived on it that long.

Here are the awards I’ve won and some of the stories I won them for.

The 2020 John Chancellor Award for career achievement, including helping Africans get AIDS drugs and Indian cancer sufferers get pain relief. Just six months ago, the Times was happy to announce that.

A 2019 GLAAD award for writing about men on PrEP being denied insurance and a 2014 GLAAD nomination for covering gay black and Hispanic men with HIV.

A 2019 Association of Health Care Journalists award for reporting from Uganda and South Africa.

A 2012 AHCJ award for writing about HIV among adult film actors and drug injectors.

The 2007 RFK Human Rights Award for covering diseases close to eradication, including guinea worm in Nigeria and lymphatic filariasis in Haiti.

A 2002 National Association of Black Journalists Award for a series on AIDS in one South African town, from men in a bar to traditional healers to rape victims.

One of the sympathetic letters I got after the Beast article appeared was from a former USAID official who told me something I had not known: that my early reporting on mosquito nets helped lead to the creation of the President’s Malaria Initiative, which has saved millions of lives.

People can be accused of racism over virtually anything. I’ve been accused on Twitter of having a “white eye on Africa.” That’s certainly true; these are the eyes I was born with and I sometimes cover Africa. But I don’t think that disqualifies me. The Times doesn’t have a policy that you must be Asian-American to cover Asia or African-American to cover Africa. If it did, the paper would be poorer for it. The only exception I know is that, until the 1970’s, the Times never made a Jewish reporter Jerusalem bureau chief; it had a morbid fear of being accused of being “pro-Jewish.” Then Tom Friedman went and won back-to-back Pulitzers, and the fear vanished.

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. 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.

In the next three parts, I will try to give just what facts I know, not opinions. Everybody has those.

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. 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.

Thanks.

PS: To those who sneered at my apology: I genuinely do love the Times and its mission.

PPS: If you know me, you know I go by Donald. Never by Don.

(Read Part Two here)

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