NYTimes Peru N-Word, Part One: Introduction

Donald G. McNeil Jr.
12 min readMar 1, 2021

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.”…

Donald G. McNeil Jr.

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