NYTimes Peru N-Word, Part Three: What Happened in the 2019 Investigation?

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

On August 8, 2019, I wrote this note to my friend Jan Benzel, the retired New York Times editor who recruited Times experts for the Putney student trips:

Hi Jan

Do you know that I’ve been hauled up before Charlotte Behrendt, Chris Biegner and the rest of the newsroom legal and human resources department for an “investigation of my behavior” on the Peru trip?

The Guild is pissed off and ready to arbitrate over this.

I’m outraged. I did EVERYTHING according to the contract: I delivered my three lectures, I joined all meals and activities, I “connected with” and “gave feedback to” students and collaborated with the leaders.

Also, as required, I didn’t have a drink the whole week.

Last year, I did exactly the same, and it went quite well. One student who sat next to me at dinner twice to talk about his parents’ divorce even told me he wished I was his father. Another student wrote me several nice emails later telling me how her studies were going and asking for reading suggestions.

This year, several students kept peppering me with political questions: how I felt about Medicare for all, about standardized tests, about affirmative action, about classmates disciplined for use of “the N-word,” about cultural appropriation, about people who pose in blackface, about colonialism. I answered every one straightforwardly, with detail and nuance — basically saying that you have to look into the details of each allegation and understand that not everyone in the world has the same perspective on life as you do.

The response has been quite incredible.

Out of the blue, Charlotte told the Guild that I was to appear before her for an inquiry. She refused to say about what. I actually thought I was in trouble for writing David Corcoran a goodbye note saying he was the best editor I ever had. After learning it wasn’t that, I spent a completely sleepless night wondering what the hell Charlotte was investigating and what the charges could be. She makes the Times newsroom more like North Korea every day.

We sit down, she tells me it’s about Peru and says 13 students have complained about me and starts asking questions about five day’s worth of conversations I held a month earlier. Everything I had said back then was twisted up and misinterpreted. I was asked if I “laughed at a shaman,” if I told a joke about a Jewish mother, made leering remarks about wanting to photograph naked teenagers, said it was OK if global warming killed poor people, endorsed blackface, or ever pronounced the word “n****r” (that one I did do, in trying to figure out what a student had actually said before she was suspended.).

During my time in Peru, not one of the three counselors had said a word to me about anything being wrong. One was rather cold to me, but the other two were quite friendly right up to the end.

(Meanwhile, one of the nice counselors, a very handsome young guy, was salsa dancing with the girls after dinner every night. Nothing inappropriate and they seemed to like it, but I thought it was pretty dicey for him to risk. But he’s not a Times employee.)

Debbie feels I was deliberately targeted by a pack of mean girls.

I don’t mind them so much — they’re just teenagers.

What really offends me is that The Times responds not by having you or someone ask me what happened and trying to get to the bottom of it — as Bill Schmidt or Peter Millones would have done — but by instantly declaring it an official job-discipline matter and convening a star chamber.

I agreed to do this trip two years in a row partially as a favor to you, because we’re friends. This is not what I expected.

You should warn anyone you recruit that the Times will treat any crazy allegation — even one by a 15-year-old — as a possibly fireable offense.

I used to love working here. Now I’m so discouraged. Such a mean, spiteful, vengeful place where everyone is looking over his/her shoulder. Even Al Siegal — Mr. Critical — had a sense of humor and balance.


Jan responded:

Hi Donald.

Oy. I’ve seen some of the student feedback in question and your detailed note about the trip, and I know how much care you put into making the trip relevant and intellectually sophisticated. There’s clearly need for discussion, but with full attention to the points you make. If you need me to engage in the conversation I’m of course available to speak up for you.


I responded:

No one at Putney reached out to you first?

How did this get to be a Charlotte B. issue in the first place?

Charlotte didn’t even seem to be familiar with the program — unless she was faking unfamiliarity to get me to say something that would hurt me. She asked if my participation was known to Celia, seemed surprised that I didn’t have to take time off to do it…

I do think it would help if you spoke up for me.

There’s so much turnover at Putney and at the Times relative to this program that you may be the only person left who knows how happy the students were last year and why I was invited back.

The three lectures I gave this year are the same ones I gave last year, so anything the second group of students heard and took offense at was identical to what the first group heard and enjoyed.

The questions at the dinner table were, of course, completely different. But I gave the same answers I would have given a year earlier.

Jan answered:

Got it. Amanee Markos and Tori Hanson (her boss) at The Times and Jeff Shumlin at Putney are all still involved and remember last year’s success too.

It’s possible Charlotte wasn’’t familiar before this with the student program but I don’t know; Amanee and Tori work closely with Phil Corbett on the trip offerings, and I get the ok from the newsroom supervisors before we sign any of you on.

I let Amanee know I’d be glad to speak up for you and I’m sure she’ll pass that on. I’ll wait to hear from her when the next conversation is. Keep me posted, ok?

I replied:

The Guild asked me for copies of my contract and the agreement addendum since Charlotte asked me about them.

Just fyi, I also sent the stories below to the Guild, since they seem to think the biggest issues were that I used the word “n****r” and that I described an event in which girls were undressed.

What happened in the first instance:

A student asked me: “Do you think one of my classmates should have been suspended for using the N-word in a video from two years ago?”

I said: “Well, wait — what exactly happened on this video? Did she actually call someone “n****r”? Or was she just using it in passing, like quoting the title of a book?”

Her: “She was in 8th grade and she was joking with a friend of hers who was black: She said “well you’re a lazy N” or something like that, and she was Jewish, so her friend said “Well, you’re cheap Jew” or something like that. And then two years later, someone who used to be her friend shared the video.”

Me: “This happened when she was in 8th grade? When she was 12 years old? And she was just goofing around with her friend? And the school suspends her for it two years later? I think that’s ridiculous. Everybody knows 12 year olds do dumb things. They’re kids. Somebody from the school should have talked to her, yes, but suspension? I think that’s insane.”

The other one was when we were talking about AIDS.* I said different countries and groups in Africa reacted differently, and totally unpredictably, to seeing lots of people die. Initially, most countries — including South Africa under Thabo Mbeki — went into denial, claiming they had no cases. Uganda was a leader, because Fidel Castro had told President Yoweri Museveni that 1/3 of his officers sent to train in Cuba had HIV, so Museveni instituted the A/B/C (abstain/be faithful/use condoms) approach. The Zulu royal family in South Africa responded by reviving the Reed Dance, on old tradition in which virgins dance for the king and bring him new reeds for his thatched huts. To be invited, the girls had to submit to “virginity tests,” and the Zulu royal family said they did this because they rejected Western ideas like condoms. (Also they were fighting for political power with Buthelezi of the Zulu nationalist party.) I described covering it and said there was one awkward moment — I asked a “dance captain” if I could interview one of her girls. She said they were mostly too shy, but there was a bold one she would introduce me too. I started the interview, and immediately 20 topless girls cluster around wanting to talk too. My photographer sees me in the middle of this throng — I’m in deep Zululand, miles from a paved road, but I’m wearing a coat and tie like a good Timesman — and he starts to shoot a picture. The picture catches me yelling: “Don’t take a picture! My wife will kill me!”

Apparently, some students took offense at that.

*(This was all part of one of my lectures. I see that in my description of denialism, I conflated two ideas: some presidents denied they had any AIDS cases; Mr. Mbeki denied that antiretroviral drugs worked. When I interviewed the dancers, I asked them why they joined the troupes, knowing they would be subject to virginity tests and would have to dance for the king and many onlookers while wearing very little.)

I also cc’d Jan on a note I wrote to the union’s grievance chairman.


New York Times style is to use the word “n****r” sparingly and to make clear the context. (I used it once in order to be sure I understood what was said when the young woman asked me the question.)

Here’s Richard Pryor’s obit, which uses it four times.

This op-ed discussion of the word uses it 11 times.

This article about Trump from last year uses it six times.

Also, here is my story about the Zulu Reed Dance for the King. As you can see, it’s all about AIDS and the struggle for political power between the royal family and the leader of a Zulu nationalist party.

There was a picture with it, but it’s not in the archive. I think it was of a girl dancing, kicking her leg in the air.

The one I talked about — the one with me in it — with something the photographer shot while I was doing my interviews and later gave to me. That’s pretty common when a reporter is caught in a humorous situation.


What had led up to this investigation is described above, in my note to Jan.

The background to this, and the reason I wrote that “North Korea” remark to Jan, is this:

I had just been summoned again before Charlotte Behrendt, a lawyer in charge of discipline inside the newsroom, and Chris Biegner, director of labor relations. At a follow-up hearing, they were joined by Andy Gutterman, a deputy general counsel.

This was not the first time since 2010 that I had been summoned before Charlotte and/or Chris on disciplinary matters. I have tried to object numerous times, both in person and in writing to Dean Baquet, for this reason:

Since 2010, I have been part of the Guild’s contract negotiating team. During contract talks, Charlotte, Chris and Andy are part of the Times management team sitting across the table from us.

We have had many harsh disagreements — over pay, over reporters’ rights to privacy, and other issues. Some of the meetings have been quite hostile. But that’s labor negotiations.

Some further background: From 1976 to 2010, I paid little attention to our union, the News Guild. But starting in 2002, when I came back from overseas, I began asking hard questions at company meetings about benefits cutbacks. I particularly missed the Employee Stock Option Plan, which in the 1980’s helped many Times employees buy homes or put their kids through college.

In 2010, when I heard at a union meeting that the company was even seeking to kill our pension plan and cut our health benefits and overtime, I started an email list to try to get the journalists in the Guild to pay more attention to the coming fight. Like me, many of us in the newsroom had been indifferent to the Guild for years. My email list eventually had almost 350 journalists’ names on it and became a major forum for discussion and for organizing walkouts.

One of my emails was leaked to Gawker — not by me and I do not know by whom. It was very critical of Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. — then our publisher — saying that, while negotiations had dragged on for months with anger building, we had not heard from him. My language was colorful and harsh and a Taiwanese company even made a cartoon mocking Arthur — and, in a lesser way, me — and posted it on YouTube.

I expected to be fired. I probably would have fired me for that. For reasons unknown to me, Arthur did not fire me. Maybe he decided, to his credit, that his employees had free speech rights. He had always been gracious about taking tough questions at company meetings. Or maybe the company’s lawyers said my remarks were protected speech under the National Labor Relations Act because they were about labor negotiations. I don’t know, but I’ve always been grateful.

Since then, however, it has felt as if I’m constantly getting in trouble.

From 1976 to 2010, I was never called into a formal disciplinary hearing. There were a few times when editors called me into their offices to tell me off— usually for losing my temper at editors whom I felt were writing errors into my copy. I would eventually calm down and go apologize.

But after the 2010–2012 talks, every misstep I made seemed to lead to formal discipline.

To me, it appeared a blatant conflict of interest for the Times to let its contract negotiators also discipline the union’s negotiators. It felt like an attempt to intimidate the union.

I wished the union itself had fought harder over this issue, but it had not.

The conflict of interest between Charlotte and myself ran even deeper. During the 2010–2012 negotiations, her husband or live-in companion, Bernard Plum, a Proskauer Rose lawyer, led the Times negotiating team.

He often spoke to us dismissively, and I repeated many things he said on my email list. In the most famous instance, in return for accepting some cutbacks, we asked for a bonus plan that would kick in when and if the Times recovered from the 2008–2009 recession.

Bernie replied: “Bonuses? Bonuses are for the people at the top who do the big thinking. Not for the people who make the widgets.”

As soon as I reported that on my list, the newsroom exploded. Signs saying “Widgets Made Here” appeared on desks. We held a walkout soon afterward; anger over that remark was one of the triggers.

I was quoted on Jim Romenesko’s media website as saying that Bernie and Terry Hayes, the Times VP of Labor Relations, had “acted like belligerent idiots.”

Later I believe — although I cannot prove it — that I may have been instrumental in getting Bernie removed as the Times representative.

About a year later, I walked up to Terry in the cafeteria and asked if we could eat lunch together. I said I knew I had been ignoring him or glaring at him when he nodded at me in a friendly way, and I felt bad about that. But I wanted to explain why I was so angry.

I told him I had a friend who’d been killed in Croatia reporting for the Times. Another had lost his legs in Afghanistan. My ex-wife had dodged gunfire in Lesotho and I’d been held at gunpoint in Somalia and Burundi. To endure that for the Times and then be called “the people who make the widgets” was so insulting that I had barely contained myself at that session, I said. And it had created enormous hostility in the newsroom.

Terry said he understood. In 2015, when we next went into negotiations again, Bernie was not at the table. The opening session was cordial. As it ended, Terry stood up and looked directly at me. “Better?” he said. “Yes,” I said. “Much better. Thank you.”

When he left the Times in 2019, I sent Terry an email thanking him for listening to me complain about Mr. Plum’s insults and “fixing the problem.” He thanked me in return and said he’d learned a lot from listening to people like me and that “addressing each other’s concerns is required to reach a deal.”

I was first formally disciplined in 2015. A Yale medical student took issue with a headline on a story of mine and gave me what I considered a condescending lecture about the difference between H.I.V. and AIDS. My reply wasn’t overtly abusive but it was sarcastic and unnecessarily rude — I said that if he was that priggish and pedantic in medical school I felt sorry for his patients.

He wrote directly to the publisher threatening to cancel his subscription. My editor emailed me while I was reporting a big story at a medical conference and said I’d stepped over the line and asked me if I wanted to apologize. I read the student’s email to the publisher — it called me “unfit for human contact,” referred sneeringly to my degree in rhetoric and said he wasn’t interested in an apology. I took a belligerent tone and said no, I didn’t want to apologize unless he also apologized to me.

The day I came back from the conference, I was summoned to a disciplinary inquiry hearing before Chris Biegner and Charlotte Behrendt. I was given four hours’ notice and was told I’d be dismissed if I failed to appear.

Even before the inquiry began, Chris had boasted to Grant Glickson, then president of our local, that he was going to fire me.

When it started, I objected, saying Chris had a conflict of interest because of our bargaining table confrontations.

“I have no conflict,” he replied, and the hearing went on.

Two days later, I was told I would be suspended without pay for a month. But if I gave up my right to file a grievance, I would be docked only a week’s pay.

This was in a year in which Dean retorted “Asshole” to a critic on Facebook, and another colleague tweeted “blow me” to a female reporter; both of those made the tabloids. My email exchange did not. An executive told me he’d once been fined $1,000 for a quoted remark that angered a former company president; that was far less than a week’s pay for him.

Filing a grievance would have led to arbitration, which involves legal bills. Those are normally paid by the New York Guild, not by our local, but there was tension between Grant and the Guild president, who was reluctant to go to arbitration. Getting my own lawyer would cost far more than a week’s pay. I took the deal.

I later had lunch with Dean and asked if I was being set up for dismissal. He said he did not think so. I told him I thought it was a conflict of interest to have company negotiators also enforcing discipline. I repeated that in an email to him.

In November 2019, after I’d been disciplined in August over the Peru trip, I again went into Dean’s office to raise the same issue.

Soon after, we had an exchange of emails:

On Nov. 26, 2019, I wrote:

Did you say anything to Charlotte about my accusing her of a conflict of interest in the two times she’s come after me?

I ask because, the last time we passed each other in a hallway, her look went from her normal alert one to realizing it was me and getting very narrow-eyed and hard.

Might just be her standard way of looking at me (we’ve never been palsy since I clashed with her during the 2015 negotiations) but it felt different. And if she’s got a new reason to have it in for me, I’d feel better knowing….

He replied:

I didn’t. Got impression you didn’t want me to.

I replied:

Oh, so it’s just her normal love for me, then.

I didn’t ask, but I didn’t ask you not to either. She’s your representative, so it’s up to you.

Personally, I think the way she does her job is [word deleted] compared to how Bill Schmidt and Janet Elder used to do it. I was trying to hold [deleted]’s hand by email when [deleted]came after her with Charlotte’s help.

And I also think it’s an overt conflict of interest for someone who engages in collective bargaining with/against an employee to also be in charge of disciplining him. (Never mind the Bernie Plum connection, which doubles that.)

I’ve been debating what to do about the discipline letter she put in my file. Some days I think I should put in a response in it, which would both point out the ridiculousness of the accusations against me, and also say that I have formally complained about her conflicts of interest. And some days I just think: “Oh, fuck it. Forget about it.” Still undecided. The question is whether her letter can come back to bite me and whether I’d be safer with a response on file. Or whether responding would just wake the sleeping lion and trigger a fresh attack.

As I mentioned in Part 2, on January 28, as the Daily Beast story was breaking, I wrote Dean a long note asking that, if this incident was going to trigger another round of discipline, that I not have to answer to Charlotte again. His reply ignored that issue.

Back to the 2019 investigation:

On August 6, 2019, I entered a Times conference room where Charlotte and Chris were at the table. Bill Baker, president of our local, Jim Luttrell, the grievance chairman, Barbara Davis, our rep from the New York Guild and Grant Glickson, who was then the Guild president, were with me.

Charlotte opened a folder.

“We’re here to discuss your behavior in Peru,” she said. “We’ve received a number of complaints from students and their parents.”

Our side asked if we could see the complaints and have copies. Charlotte said no.

In retrospect, the Guild should probably have stopped the proceeding right there. But they didn’t.

Charlotte asked if I was surprised that there were complaints from students and parents. I said yes, I was. Some of the students had asked me many political questions and a couple were clearly unhappy with my answers and had turned frosty. But most had seemed friendly enough, and the three lectures I gave had sparked a lot of discussion. So, yes, I said, I was surprised to hear that there were complaints that had actually reached the Times.

Then Charlotte began asking me a series of questions. Some I answered immediately. Some left me totally baffled.

What follows is my memory of the questions and how I answered them. I admit I was not taking notes in that room, so I’m re-creating the conversation. But I wrote lengthy emails to Jan and the union about it soon afterward while the details were fresh in my mind. Also, I’ve been a reporter for a long time and I’m good at remembering conversations.

Charlotte: “Did you say the word “n****r” on this trip?”

I flinched a little as she said it, mostly because Bill, who was sitting next to me, is black.

“Yes, I did,” I said. And I explained the context, which I’ve explained above.

“When you said it, was anyone in the room black?”

“No. No one on the trip was black.”

(I only remember Charlotte using the offending word once, but according to other notes taken during the meeting which I became aware of only this past Saturday, Feb. 27, she used it three times.)

Charlotte: “Did you say there’s no such thing as white privilege?”

Me: “No. That’s ridiculous. Of course there’s such a thing as white privilege. I used to live in South Africa. The whole country’s all about white privilege.”

“So you didn’t say there was no such thing?”

“No. Absolutely not. That doesn’t even make any sense.”

[Despite recent published reports: I don’t remember Charlotte ever asking me if I’d denied the existence of white supremacy. That would have been equally absurd — of course there are white supremacists. The ideas that I denied the existence of white supremacy or that I said “racism is over” both seem to have been invented sometime between 2019 and the present.]

Charlotte: “Did you say there is no such thing as institutional racism?”

Me: “No, I didn’t — but I said it varies. This was during a long discussion of white privilege, crime rates, racism and other issues. The students blamed everything bad that befalls members of minority groups on “the system” or “institutional racism.”

“As I remember the conversation, I said something like: You can’t blame everything on “the system.” Yes, institutional racism exists — but it varies by institution. Racism inside the Los Angeles Police Department is different from racism inside the U.S. Army is different from racism inside The New York Times. You have to look at each case individually: Was it really because of institutional prejudice? Or was it because somebody actually screwed up? That’s why we have courts — they look at each case individually.”

Charlotte: “Did you say something about picking up the white mans’ burden?”

Me: “Yes. And a student got upset. But I explained it to her. I was quoting Kipling. I’m not sure the student had ever heard of Kipling.” [I’ll explain this in the next section.]

Charlotte: “Did you say it was O.K. to wear blackface?”

Me: “No, I didn’t. Not for white people. That came up during a long discussion of “cultural appropriation.” The students were very much against anyone appropriating anything from any other culture ever. They talked about a white teenager who wore a Chinese dress to her prom. I said lots of Asian brides wore white European wedding dresses — so was that wrong? I said that what they were against, I was for — that adopting of other cultures’ inventions and things was how you got civilization. I said nobody ever got to say “We invented fire, so it’s ours,” or “We invented money, so it’s ours.” I talked about domestication of animals and paper and gunpowder — the Chinese invented it, but it wasn’t really useful for anything but fireworks until the Ottomans invented the cannon. They said those were old irrelevant examples. I said “OK, I live in New York and I like eating Chinese food. Is that wrong? I come from San Francisco and we invented blue jeans. Does that mean you can’t wear blue jeans?” I said tomatoes were originally from Peru, where we were. Did that mean Italians couldn’t use them? Or they shouldn’t eat pizza?

One girl got exasperated and said: “Well, are you saying it’s OK to wear blackface? “ And I said “No, not normally. But what do you say to black people who wear blackface?”

She got disgusted and said “Black people don’t wear blackface!”

Actually, they do, I said, and I told her about the Cape Town carnival where mixed-race South Africans dress up in blackface as minstrels and play Dixieland jazz because of an American minstrel show that came through 100 years ago. And it’s got a really offensive name, the Coon Carnival. When American tourists come to South Africa and say they’re offended, the locals say “Buzz off, this is our culture now.” You can’t go around the world as white Americans, I said, telling other people what parts of their culture are acceptable and which aren’t.

Charlotte: “Did you say climate change didn’t matter because it only killed poor people?”

Me: “What? No, of course not. I remember that conversation. We were talking about climate change, and I said the scenarios you saw in things like Al Gore’s movie were always melodramatic and alarmist — they made it look as if a third of the world was suddenly going to be underwater. I said it was going to happen more slowly. It was going to be bad, but it wasn’t going to end the human race or even wipe out a third of the humanity the way the Black Death did. People would adapt. People would move. Cities like Miami and New Orleans might have to be abandoned, but other cities on higher ground would grow. It might become impossible to farm in Southern California because of drought, but it would be possible to farm in parts of Canada and Russia that were now frozen. Overall, I said, I didn’t regard climate change as the world-ending disaster that they did. When I was a teenager, I said, everyone worried about the Population Bomb, that the world would be starving to death in 20 years. That didn’t happen, because of Mao’s one-child policy and the Green Revolution and a lot of other things. Later, I said, everybody worried about the hole in the ozone, that we were all going to die of cancer. That didn’t happen because CFC’s were banned, or whatever. So I said I did worry about climate change and it had to be addressed, but I worried more about things like pandemics and nuclear war.

“Some of them didn’t like my thinking. And one asked: “Well, don’t you realize that poor people are going to suffer the most?” And I said, “Yeah, I do, and it’s sad. But it’s also kind of inevitable — poor people are the first to suffer whenever something bad happens. In places like Bangladesh, 25,000 people got swept out to sea by a tsunami because they were forced to live on mud flats in a river delta while the rich lived on high ground. Poor people die in landslides because they’re forced to live on steep mountainsides. Poor people die in big fires, or when chemical plants leak, like in Bhopal. It’s sad, it’s tragic, but I don’t know what you can do about it because it’s the way of the world.”

“So I guess somebody translated all that into “climate change doesn’t matter because it only kills poor people.” But it’s not what I said.”

Charlotte: “Did you make fun of a student’s hometown?”

I was taken aback.

Me: “I don’t think so. What hometown?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you know which student? I remember where some came from. I don’t remember making fun of anyone’s hometown.”

“I don’t know.”

“Was it — a town with a funny name? Like, I dunno — Keokuk, Iowa?”

“Did you make fun of Keokuk, Iowa?”

“No! There was nobody from Keokuk. But it’s a town whose name I use sometimes when I’m talking about someplace in the middle of nowhere — like Winnemucca, Nevada. Or East Hoodywaddie.”

“You don’t remember making fun of anyone’s hometown?”

“No, sorry. I don’t. I’ll think about, but I don’t.”

Charlotte: “Did you tell a joke about a doctor and a Jewish mother?”

Me: “A doctor and a Jewish mother….? I don’t think so… Do you know the joke?”


“Just the punchline or anything?”


I tried to think of any jokes about doctors and Jewish mothers I knew.

“Was it about Mike Bloomberg being on Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me?”

“I don’t know. What’s that joke?”

“Uh, Bloomberg is on the show, and Peter Sagal asks him: Is your mother ever disappointed in you? I mean I know you’re a billionaire and you were mayor of New York City…but does your mother ever say: “Yes, but you could have been a doctor”?

Charlotte didn’t crack a smile.

“Did you tell that joke?”

“No. It’s just the only doctor-Jewish mother joke I can think of. I don’t think I told that one. I can’t imagine why I would have.”

Charlotte: “OK, let’s move on. Did you insult a shaman?”

“No. I didn’t insult anybody. Which shaman? There were two shamans, an Amazonian one and an Incan one. Do you know which one they mean?”

“Did you insult or make fun of either of them?”

“No! I actually really respected the Amazonian one. He knew a lot about herbs. I interviewed him afterward, and I took notes and took his picture and asked him if I could quote him in the paper some day. He seemed very happy about it. The other one, I didn’t take so seriously. He seemed like kind of a rent-a-shaman for tourists. He did a ceremony for us, but he also came back to the hotel to sell souvenirs.”

“Did you generally say disrespectful things about shamans?”

“Well, yes and no. I thought there was too much focus on shamans and alternative medicine and herbs and stuff like that on the trip. This trip is supposed to be about rural health — that’s why I’m the expert. But this year’s trip was different from last year’s. There was a lot of focus on shamanism, and local plants and customs… Look, I’m not completely dismissive of this stuff. I’ve interviewed shamans and witch doctors and sangomas and nyangas or whatever you want to call local healers. I’ve spent the night in a sangoma’s hut talking about AIDS. They often know a lot of plant medicine, and they understand the psychology of their patients, and a lot of what they do is about treating beliefs — many rural people in Africa and Latin America think disease is caused by curses, not germs, and witch doctors lift curses. But Westerners romanticize that stuff, and these kids definitely did. Some of it’s helpful and some of it’s harmless and some of it’s dangerous. For example — and I talked to them about this — it used to be the tradition in Peru that, when a baby was born and you cut the umbilical cord, you put a lump of dung on the stump. Llama dung or goat dung or whatever. Well, that kills a lot of babies from tetanus. I know a doctor from Cornell who told me it was one of the leading causes of neonatal mortality in Peru. That’s one of the reasons the Peruvian government actually fines women who don’t travel to government clinics to give birth. Now, that sounds really brutal to American kids who think home birth is this cool, wonderful thing — but it saves lives. So, yeah, I did not show total respect for local traditions. Because some of them kill babies.”

“And I also had a discussion on the bus in front of the students with one of the leaders, who was a grad student in plant biology. He was really into ayahuasca, which is this psychedelic brew they drink in the Amazon. He wanted to do a study giving it to people, and I was going ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, that’s not how you do a clinical trial. You can’t just brew up a batch of psychoactive herbs and give it to people — you’re going to get people flipping out, you might get suicides. That’s totally unethical. You have to figure out what the active ingredients are, and give them to people under controlled circumstances, and have a placebo group.’ So I’m sure I came across as the old fuddy-duddy defending Western medicine. So sue me. But that’s how I feel. That’s what I was there for — to talk about real medicine, not shamanism.”

Charlotte: “Did you sing a Boy Scout song during a shaman ceremony?”

“What??? Did I sing a Boy Scout song? No, I don’t think so. What Boy Scout song?”

“I don’t know.”

“Um…. I don’t know what to say.”

I thought for a minute.

“Was it “I Wear My Pink Pajamas in the Summer When It’s Hot?”

“I don’t know. Did you sing that?”

“No, I don’t think I sang that. I can’t think of any reason I would have sung it. Was it “The Monkey He Got Drunk?” I don’t think I sang that one either. But those are the only two songs I can remember from Boy Scout camp. I mean, I sang them to my kids, but I didn’t sing them on this trip.”

“I don’t know.”

“OK, sorry. I don’t know either.”

Charlotte: “Did you make a joke about being photographed with topless girls?”

“Oh. OK, yes and no. I did, but the way you’re asking it makes it sound much creepier than what I actually said. It wasn’t creepy. It was part of one of my lectures. It was about how different African countries handled AIDS. I told the same story to the students the year before. I probably made the same joke — that my photographer started photographing me, and I said “Don’t take my picture. My wife will kill me!” I’ve told this story a hundred times. But, you’re right, it was stupid. Obviously. I should have realized that teenage girls were the wrong audience to tell it in front of.”

The picture in question is on the Chancellor Award website.

The questions went on and on. Some completely baffled me.

Over the next couple of nights, as I tried to replay all the conversations from Peru in my head, I remembered that I had sung a Boy-Scout-like song, I had made a joke about a student’s hometown and I had told a joke about doctors and Jewish mothers. Which was actually about my mother.

I asked for a second hearing so I could explain those; it took place August 15.

I’ll get to those in the next chapter, when I talk about what happened in Peru.

I’ll also answer some questions raised since then that I don’t remember Charlotte ever asking me about, such as whether I said nepotism was affirmative action for white people.

After Aug. 15, Charlotte discussed the case with whomever she discussed it with — I don’t know whom. In the end, here was my punishment:

Charlotte gave me a lecture telling me she understood the situation I was in because she was a mother and she knew first-hand how difficult it could be to deal with teen-age girls. But I had nonetheless shown extremely poor judgment, she said, especially by using the racial slur — even just to ask a question — and by mentioning my reaction to my picture being taken at the Reed Dance. I should have shown more sense, she said. I didn’t disagree.

I was forbidden to go on any future Times expert trips, and my participation as an expert in an upcoming London Science Weekend for adults was cancelled.

And a disciplinary letter was put in my file.

The letter reads:


Sept 13, 2019

Dear Donald:

As you know, the New York Times (the “Times”) recently received feedback regarding your participation as the Times expert on a Times Student Journey to Peru last June, run by Putney Student Travel (“Putney”) The feedback, shared with the Times by Putney, was provided by more than half the students who attended the trip and included a number of detailed complaints about your interactions with both the students and others during the course of the trip.

We took those complaints very seriously. After conducting a thorough investigation, we concluded that you had exercised poor judgment and a profound lack of sensitivity in a number of your interactions with the students — including a conversation in which you used the “N-word” explicitly during a discussion involving the use of the word in which none of the students present used the word and another conversation in which you made reference to topless teenaged girls doing a tribal dance and your reaction to being photographed with them. In other conversations with the students, it was neither your language nor the specific subject matter that was objectionable, but rather your tone in debating the students’ viewpoints, which they perceived as harsh and dismissive. That perception left many of the students so upset and uncomfortable that they avoided interacting with you for the remainder of the trip. In addition, several students were troubled and embarrassed by what appeared to be your attitude toward the two shamans engaged on the trip, which came across as arrogant, rude and dismissive regardless of your actual opinions of the shamans or what you had intended to convey in your interactions with them.

We accept your assertion that you intended to challenge and expand the students’ thinking about a number of issues, not to dismiss or ridicule their viewpoints or deliberately make them uncomfortable. However, the manner in which you engaged them on several occasions and the judgment you exhibited in those encounters fell woefully short of what we expect of someone representing the Times and our core values.

We also learned in the course of investigating the students’ complaints about your conduct that Putney had decided against engaging you as an expert on future trips even before receiving the complaints from the students. The basis for their decision was the degree of difficulty and unpleasantness involved in dealing with you on pre-trip administrative and logistical matters, including the adversarial manner in which you dealt with Putney staff members regarding various details of your trip contract.

As a result of all of the above, you will not represent the Times as an expert on any Times Journeys (student or adult, whether run by Putney or any other third-party tour company) or similar ventures until further notice. In addition, this letter serves as a formal warning that any future instance of poor judgment or rude, offensive behavior toward any Times vendor or customer, participant in a Times-related program or other Times staffer will result in further discipline, up to and including termination.

Very truly yours,

Charlotte Behrendt

Assistant Managing Editor

Cc: Bill Baker

Chris Biegner

Barbara Davis

Celia Dugger

Tori Hanson

Jim Luttrell

Amanee Markos

Carolyn Ryan

(Read Part Four here)



Donald G. McNeil Jr.

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