NYTimes Peru N-Word, Part Two: What Happened January 28?

At 11:17 A.M. on January 28, I got an email from the Daily Beast. It was from Lachlan Cartwright, and said:

Hi Donald,

The Daily Beast is preparing to publish a story about you, and we wanted to give you an opportunity to comment.

We will report:

**Following a 2019 “student journeys” trip to Peru hosted by the New York Times in conjunction with Putney Student Travel, a number of students and their parents complained that you made wildly offensive and racist comments.

**Several students complained that you also used the n-word, questioned the notion of white privilege, and argued that blackface was not offensive.

**The NYT was aware of this in 2019 and some staff were “disturbed” by your behavior and discussed how to handle the potential fallout.

**The NYT investigated the matter and took disciplinary action against you and communicated as much with parents of children who had been on the trip.

If you wish to comment we would prefer responses in writing and on record. If you would like to talk over the phone you can reach me at XXX-XXX-XXXX.

Deadline for comment is 3pm ET Thursday January 28th.

Cheers, Lachlan

I was busy working on a Covid-19 story and didn’t even notice it. At the time, I was getting more than 500 emails a day, mostly about the virus, and I often didn’t read some until 4 A.M.

But soon my boss, Celia Dugger, the Science editor, was calling. “Did you see the email from the Daily Beast?”

“No. What email?”

I called it up and read it quickly.

“Oh, god,” I said. “Seriously? Peru again?”

“We’ve got to answer it. Charlotte wants you to get on the phone with her.”

“Why? Why don’t we just tell them to fuck off? See what they print and I can answer it.”

“No, we have to answer them today. Can you talk to Charlotte now?”

“Why do we have to bend to their demand for 3 o’clock? Why are we letting them push us around? Tell them no. I’m busy. Tell them to hold the story and we’ll respond when we’re ready.”

“No, they want to respond now. Let me get Charlotte on the phone and I’ll conference you in.”

I was instantly wary for reasons I’ll explain later.

But I had no choice. This kind of problem was Charlotte Behrendt’s job to handle; she’s the associate managing editor for employee relations. Also, she had been in charge of the 2019 Peru investigation, so she knew more of the facts than almost anyone else at the Times did.

Also, the last time we had spoken, in the newsroom in early March 2020, just before lockdown, she had been friendly, complimenting me on my Feb. 27 appearance on The Daily, when I said the virus in China might soon be a pandemic and change our lives.

From the very beginning, I misread the situation. I was blasé about the Beast email. The Times was in full freakout message-control mode.

Charlotte instructed me to say nothing in reply, to not take any reporters’ phone calls, to just let Corporate Communications handle it.

As I remember, I said: “OK, I won’t talk to anybody. I don’t want to. But why are we even responding? You’ve heard all this before. You know it’s mostly bullshit. Just ignore them. Or tell them to hold the article until I can respond point by point.”

I was told no, that this could turn into a big story, that it would be lumped in with Lauren Wolfe and the Caliphate scandal.

“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “What in the world do I have to do with Caliphate?”

Because I had been so focused on the pandemic, I had only a dim idea of what those two scandals were about. But I agreed to not call or write to the Beast or take any phone calls from any reporters.

“We need to include an apology from you,” either Charlotte or Celia said.

“For what?” I said. “I didn’t do most of these things.”

“Donald, you said the N-word,” Celia said.

“OK, yes I did, and I’ll apologize. But I want to explain the context and say the rest is false.”

So I hung up and wrote this:

1. Yes, I did use the word, in this context: A student asked me if I thought her high school’s administration was right to suspend a classmate of hers for using the word in a video she’d made in eighth grade. I said “Did she actually call someone a “(offending word”? Or was she singing a rap song or quoting a book title or something?” When the student explained that it was the student, who was white and Jewish, sitting with a black friend and the two were jokingly insulting each other by calling each other offensive names for a black person and a Jew, I said “She was suspended for that? Two years later? No, I don’t think suspension was warranted. Somebody should have talked to her, but any school administrator should know that 12-year-olds say dumb things. It’s part of growing up.”

2. I was never asked if I believed in white privilege. As someone who lived in South Africa in the 1990’s and has reported in Africa almost every year since, I have a clearer idea than most Americans of white privilege. I was asked if I believed in systemic racism. I answered words to the effect of: “Yeah, of course, but tell me which system we’re talking about. The U.S. military? The L.A.P.D.? The New York Times? They’re all different.”

3. The question about blackface was part of a discussion of cultural appropriation. The students felt that it was never, ever appropriate for any white person to adopt anything from another culture — not clothes, not music, not anything. I counter-argued that all cultures grow by adopting from others. I gave examples — gunpowder and paper. I said I was a San Franciscan, and we invented blue jeans. Did that mean they — East Coast private school students — couldn’t wear blue jeans? I said we were in Peru, and the tomato came from Peru. Did that mean that Italians had to stop using tomatoes? That they had to stop eating pizza? Then one of the students said: “Does that mean that blackface is OK?” I said “No, not normally — but is it OK for black people to wear blackface?” “The student, sounding outraged, said “Black people don’t wear blackface!” I said “In South Africa, they absolutely do. The so-called colored people in Cape Town have a festival every year called the Coon Carnival* where they wear blackface, play Dixieland music and wear striped jackets. It started when a minstrel show came to South Africa in the early 1900’s. Americans who visit South Africa tell them they’re offended they shouldn’t do it, and they answer ‘Buzz off. This is our culture now. Don’t come here from America and tell us what to do.’ So what do you say to them? Is it up to you, a white American, to tell black South Africans what is and isn’t their culture?”

*(Since writing that email, I’ve learned from YouTube that the event has been renamed the Minstrel Carnival and, while face paint is common, blackface is rarer.)

I sent it to Celia, Charlotte and Danielle Rhoades-Ha from communications at 1:41 P.M.

As I read the words now, it is not an apology, it is an explanation. But I had already said I was ready to apologize for saying the word, although I wanted to specify that I had not used it in a “wildly racist and offensive way.”

Since this episode began, I have been willing to apologize for any actual offense I’d given — but not to agree to the Beast’s characterization of me, which I felt made me sound like a drunken racist roaring around Peru insulting everyone in sight.

If the Times had not panicked and I had been allowed to send some version of that, perhaps the Beast would have rewritten or even spiked its story. Almost undoubtedly, the reaction inside the Times itself would have been different.

Decades ago, I was friends with the Times’ chief spokeswoman, Nancy Nielsen. We worked together on our college paper before she went to business school.

I used to joke with her that she had world’s easiest job. No matter what crisis confronted the Times, I said, she would issue the same press release: “Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention. We will look into it. We will have no further comment.”

But that was then.

Corporate Communications rejected my words. In an email from Danielle, her boss Eileen Murphy, Charlotte and Celia, I was told the Beast story might create a big backlash and “people will find additional fault in too many details.”

It was suggested I say only: “My comments were offensive and I should not have made them, and I apologize.”

I felt that was tantamount to admitting that the Beast story was accurate.

I replied:

No, I’m sorry, but I do not feel I said or did anything offensive. This makes it sound like I targeted someone with a racial slur. I did not. I asked whether the word had been used. Charlotte used the same word exactly the same way when asking me if I had used the word. We use the word in The Times in discussions of whether or not the word can be used. Such as here. And here. I have heard executive editors use the word in that context. If I can’t give the context I offered, I’d prefer to say nothing.

As the clocked ticked closer to the Beast deadline, we had quick exchanges of emails.

Finally, at 2:56 P.M. Celia proposed:

Following the investigation, he recognized and regretted that some of his comments had offended students on the tour, including his repeating a racist slur in the context of discussing with the students an incident in which the use of that slur had been the central issue.

At 3 P.M., I replied:

No, thank you. Please say nothing from me. I may still be a stubborn Catholic school boy. I will take the beating, but if I didn’t commit the sin, I won’t ask for forgiveness.

At 3:49 P.M., knowing that conflicts with Charlotte inevitably meant trouble for me, I sent Dean Baquet, the executive editor, a note. I summarized what had happened, right up to my “stubborn Catholic school boy” reply, and added:

If this is going to turn into another matter of discipline, could I ask you to appoint someone else to oversee it? Carolyn or Matt or someone? I know Charlotte is the company’s lawyer on this stuff, but she and I have too much baggage from arguments at the bargaining table for this not to be a conflict of interest.

This is especially true as we are entering labor negotiations again. I’m officially on the negotiating team for the Guild although I have taken almost no part in the preparations since I’m too busy to focus on contract issues.

Dean didn’t reply until 5:36 P.M., and then said only:

But Donald it was dumb and whether you meant it to be that way or not it was insensitive

At 4 P.M., Danielle sent me the Beast story. I hadn’t read it since I wasn’t a subscriber and was too irritated to pay them. Its sources, she said, included a leaked Times internal email.

At 4:22, I replied:

“I’m just going to keep quiet. Anyone who knows me isn’t going to believe this.”

Phone calls from unknown numbers, messages, and multiple emails began pouring in. I ignored most, but stupidly replied to the Washington Post “Don’t believe everything you read.”

I meant it as a flip way to indicate: “I can’t comment but the Beast story is wrong.”

It now seems clear that the Post reporter read it as “Don’t believe the Times press release.”

At 6:32 P.M., Danielle told me the Post had asked for a reply to my reply and said:

“I’m afraid your comment may backfire and I would recommend not replying similarly to other reporters. For example, one possible outcome is that the students on that trip could start sharing their stories on social media and we’re in for days for coverage.”

The Post, the Times and other outlets wrote stories that evening.

I continued to misread the situation. I thought it was ridiculous for serious papers to pick up the Beast story. In my mind, I’m still a relatively obscure science reporter covering diseases no one else is interested in, and that Peru trip had been just one distant week in a long career.

From phone calls I got the next day, Friday, and from a Feb. 10 Vanity Fair article, I now know that Times management had taken it far more seriously than I realized. Top management had met by Zoom with black reporters. There were department-by-department Zoom meetings about it. Slack channels were aflame, which I didn’t know because I avoid Slack unless I’m forced to use it. The Guild held an emergency meeting of its unit council. I was on the council, but I don’t know if I was invited since those messages go to a non-Times email I sometimes forget to check for days.

Word that “McNeil refused to apologize” had spread.

My reply to the Washington Post had angered management.

On Friday, Celia and Dean reached me on a conference call. Dean and I have known and liked each other since 1994, when we were both reporters and our desks were near each other during newsroom construction.

Dean said the staff was very upset. He knew I was not a racist, he said, but I was also being too stubborn, and if I could apologize, it would help.

I said I had been willing to apologize on Thursday, but I’d wanted to explain that the article was full of false accusations.

He asked me to “work with Celia” on an apology. I said I would and started drafting one. And then something I never expected occurred. My first wife, Suzanne Daley, called me. Either she had volunteered to help me, or Dean had asked her, or both — I’m still unclear on that. I absolutely believed then and still believe that she was doing it out of kindness. But I felt it created an awkward situation; she and I had a famously hostile divorce more than 20 years ago, though we’ve gotten along much better in recent years, especially since our daughters got married and our first grandchild was born. Also, she is a masthead editor on the international print edition and lives with a Times lawyer.

Suzanne told me that she had listened in on meetings that day and the situation was far more serious than I realized. There was so much anger that my job was in danger, Dean’s might be in danger. The “Chancellor people had called,” implying that the prize might be withdrawn. My Pulitzer nominations could be dropped.

Articles about the staff’s anger began appearing online.

I still felt that revealing every detail would calm the situation. But it was made clear to me that what the Times wanted was a minimum of detail, reference only to my use of the slur, and an apology as broad and deep as I could make to everyone who felt aggrieved.

Celia, Suzanne and I struggled from 3 P.M. to nearly 9 P.M. to agree on wording. I complained that theirs sounded like groveling and implied that the Beast story was largely accurate. We went through many drafts. By 9 P.M., I was exhausted and hungry and said “Fine” to the last. I sent it to Dean, managing editor Joe Kahn and deputy managing editor Matt Purdy.

The next morning, Celia checked with Danielle and conveyed her message that my statement “needs to more comprehensive in responding to the issues raised in the Daily Beast article.”

Celia drafted a new paragraph saying the students had misunderstood what I’d said about white privilege and institutional racism, both of which, of course, exist. It also mentioned the blackface issue, giving few details but alluding to a Cape Town carnival. I also sent that on to Dean, Joe and Matt.

Neither email was answered, all day Saturday and all day Sunday. Suzanne, Celia and I exchanged emails confirming that we had all heard nothing.

I spent the weekend with my girlfriend at her mother’s Long Island home; her mother had just lost her partner to pancreatic cancer and was moving to Connecticut. My girlfriend was helping her pack.

For me, the weekend was a long blur of answering emails and texts and phone calls from friends saying how outraged they were at the Beast article and others and how the Times was handling it. I wrote a detailed potential reply to the Beast article summarizing what, from my perspective, had really happened in Peru. I sent it to a few friends and two leaders of the Guild local. Then, I thought better of that and sent follow-up notes asking them to share it with no one.

Just before 7 AM on Sunday, I wrote a note to my colleague Nikole Hannah-Jones. It read:

Dear Nikole,

I think we haven’t met — I wanted to come up to you after your Guild presentation a year ago (a year….?) and tell you how much I admired your work, but you were mobbed with admirers and I had to get home.

Patti Cohen tells me that you are doing some fact-finding about what happened in Peru.

Since the DB article came out, I have felt completely trapped. The Times is in full damage-control mode and wants the story to just die quietly. They have instructed me to not answer the Beast, to completely shut up and do everything through Corp Comms. They’re mad at me for even saying “Don’t believe everything you read” to the Post because it got twisted into sounding like I disagreed with Dean, not with the Beast.

But that leaves me unable to say anything, which means everyone who doesn’t know me assumes I must be a monster. And I know that, above everything else, journalists want answers, so they can form their own opinions.

I gather that I have many colleagues who are wondering what the hell the Times is doing keeping a monster on staff. I would wonder myself. Can I send you some of the facts of that trip from my perspective? But can I ask that you handle in such a way that it does NOT leak to the press? Because I’ll get in trouble all over again if it does.

Thanks, Donald

I heard nothing back that day — other than notes from other friends.

On Monday, February 1 — by coincidence, my birthday — Dean and Carolyn Ryan called me at about 10:30 A.M.

My notes of the conversation are sparser than I normally take, but I also recounted it right afterward to a friend, so I think this is accurate.

As I remember it, Dean started off by saying “Donald, you had a great year — you really owned the story of the pandemic….”

As soon as I realized he was talking in the past tense, I became tense and started taking notes.

“Donald, I know you,” he went on. “I know you’re not a racist. We’re going ahead with your Pulitzer. We’re writing to the board telling them we looked into this two years ago.”

“But Donald, you’ve lost the newsroom. People are hurt. People are saying they won’t work with you because you didn’t apologize.”

“I did write an apology,” I said. “I sent it to you Friday night. I sent another paragraph on Saturday morning. Didn’t you get it?”

Dean didn’t answer.

“I saw it,” Carolyn said.

“But Donald,” Dean said, “you’ve lost the newsroom. A lot of your colleagues are hurt. A lot of them won’t work with you. Thank you for writing the apology. But we’d like you to consider adding to it that you’re leaving.”

“WHAT?” I said loudly. “ARE YOU KIDDING? You want me to leave after 40-plus years? Over this? You know this is bullshit. You know you looked into it and I didn’t do the things they said I did, I wasn’t some crazy racist, I was just answering the kids’ questions.”

“Donald, you’ve lost the newsroom. People won’t work with you.”

“What are you talking about?” I said. “Since when do we get to choose who we work with?”

“Donald, you’ve had a great year, you’re still up for a Pulitzer.”

“And I’m supposed to what — call in to the ceremony from my retirement home?”

Carolyn stepped in: “Donald, there are other complaints that you made people uncomfortable. X, Y and Z.”

I remember looking at the snow in my garden.

“May I know exactly what X, Y and Z are? And who said I did X, Y and Z? I’m happy to answer anything — but I have to know what I’m being accused of.”

Neither of them responded. To me, it felt like an attempt to intimidate me.

“Let me give you an alternative view of who’s ‘lost the newsroom,’” I said. “I’ve been getting emails and calls from bureaus all over the world saying, “Hang in there, you’re getting screwed.” People are outraged at how I’m being trashed in the press and by the Times. If you fire me over this, you’re going to lose everybody over age 40 at the paper, all the grownups. All your bureau chiefs, all your Washington reporters, all your Pulitzer winners. Especially once they realize how innocuous what I really said was and that you didn’t find it a firing offense in 2019. And they’ll talk to every media columnist in town. The right wing will have a field day.”

“We’re not firing you,” Dean said. “We’re asking you to consider resigning.”

“You’re twisting my arm.”

“We’re not twisting your arm.”

“Just mentioning it, just bringing it up, is twisting my arm. Nobody in 45 years has suggested I resign. Charlotte has threatened to fire me a couple of times, but that’s different. That was always bullshit. But nobody’s ever suggested I resign. I should shut up and get a lawyer. I need a lawyer.”

Dean and Carolyn seemed to pretend to not hear that, either.

“We’re not twisting your arm. We’re asking you to consider it.”

“No. I’m not considering it. I’m not just quitting like this.”

The conversation then trailed to an end, with them saying “consider it” and me saying no.

Soon after we hung up, I had a furious conversation with a friend walking his dog.

“What does he mean, I’ve “lost the newsroom?” I raged. “People won’t work with me? Since when do we get to pick and choose who we work with? That’s not in our contract. In fact, that amounts to racial discrimination, that’s illegal. Under Federal law. Under Times policy. Under Guild tradition. You work with who they assign you. Photographer, producer, editor, whatever. What is this?”

I sent a note to two Guild officers about what had happened and started looking for a lawyer. I contacted several friends who knew about situations like mine, and learned something that came as a huge relief.

Since I had been investigated and punished in 2019, one explained, the Peru trip was a dead issue. As with criminal law, the principle of “no double jeopardy” applies to punishments meted out under union contracts. I could not be re-investigated.

But I could still be in danger. When companies can’t dismiss an employee, they often transfer him into a dead-end job and hope he gets so miserable that he quits, and they watch him like a hawk for a new mistake he can be fired for.

In the early afternoon, I heard back from Nikole Hannah-Jones:

Hi Donald,

I truly respect your reaching out to me, even though you most clearly did not need to. I cannot imagine what this has been like for you. I am happy to listen and I would never leak anything. I do not operate that way, so rest assured.

Best,

NHJ

But everything had now changed, so I answered:

Nikole:

Thank you for getting back to me — I appreciate it. I know exactly how much reporters want facts first, and then will decide how they feel later.

I was hoping to have a phone conversation with you to tell you exactly what happened in Peru (from my perspective, of course) two years ago. And to answer any questions you have.

But as of about two hours ago, things took an unexpected turn, and I’m having to hire a lawyer. Who, if I know lawyers, will advise me not to have that conversation. I’m sorry — — I know that must be frustrating for you, and for all my other colleagues who just want honest answers.

When this is over — wherever I am then (and assuming we’re both vaccinated) — I’d be happy to sit down over a beer and have this conversation. But right now, I no longer can. I’m sorry.

But thanks for reaching out.

Donald

That’s the only contact we’ve ever had.

By that evening, I had a lawyer. (To clear up a question that’s been reported: I did not refuse Guild representation, and I stayed in contact with my local’s officers. But understanding that the Guild too was deeply split over my case, I decided I needed my own lawyer.)

I called Celia, to tell her that Dean had asked me to resign, and that I now had a lawyer. I was signaling that I wouldn’t be able to talk to her again, or do any reporting or writing for her until this was resolved.

She understood.

“They said that, if you refused to leave voluntarily, you wouldn’t be the lead pandemic reporter any more,” she said. “No more big front-page stories. No more appearances on The Daily.”

Through the union, I had also been told that, at their Friday online meeting with black reporters, Dean, Carolyn and the company’s president, Meredith Kopit Levien had asked anyone who had “had a problem with Donald” to reach them privately.

That could be read either of two ways:

Either as simple due diligence, looking for a hidden pattern of bad behavior, as often turns up in sexual harassment cases.

Or as fishing for new charges to bring.

At 7:12 PM Tuesday evening, I sent Dean an email:

Dean,

You may know this already but I have retained counsel and he is making contact with Diane Brayton. [NYT general counsel]

Just so you know: When this is over, we’re still friends, and if you want to meet for a beer in LA someday, I’d like to.

Donald

Dean replied:

Of course my friend. I understand.

That’s the last time we were in contact.

Four days later, on Friday, at the Times’ request and urging, I allowed the Times to announce I was stepping down.

As we were finalizing everything, the Times forwarded the statement it would issue, phrased as a note from Dean and Joe:

Colleagues:

“We are writing to let you know that Donald McNeil Jr. will be leaving the company. Donald joined The Times in 1976 and has done much good reporting over four decades. But Donald agrees that this is the right next step.

“We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.”

I insisted that “But Donald agrees that…” be removed.

It was changed to “But we feel that…”

(Read Part Three here)

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