Media institutions continue to grapple with the question of how exactly to take responsibility for their roles in maintaining systemic racism against a stubborn culture that continues to dither about whether incidents of alleged racism are really that problematic or just evidence of “wokeness” gone too far.
Wokeness, of course, is the pejorative that has taken over “politically correct” to mock the consideration of the feelings of historically marginalized people, which apparently encroaches on the right of the average straight, white man to say anything without social consequence.
The responses to longtime New York Times reporter Donald G. McNeil’s recent resignation from the paper are the latest evidence of the messiness in how institutions are responding to issues of race after the movements in 2020.
Last month, the Daily Beast revealed that McNeil had used the n-word while leading a group of high school students on a Times trip to Peru in 2019. According to the story, several students and their parents wrote complaints alleging that McNeil made “various racist comments” during the trip, which made them uncomfortable, including using the n-word, sharing stereotypes about Black teenagers and saying that white privilege doesn’t exist.
After the Daily Beast report, NYT Executive Editor Dean Banquet acknowledged that he was made aware of the offensive remarks but said he had concluded that McNeil’s “intentions” were not hateful or malicious after an internal investigation by the news company.
But the public spotlight on the disturbing incident understandably raised the concern of McNeil’s colleagues at the Times—the vast majority of whom were not made aware of the allegations until the Daily Beast brought them to light, according to what one reporter told The Root on background.
The troubling report led over 150 staffers to write to Banquet and other Times’ senior leadership seeking more information and a more transparent response to the allegations.
“Despite The Times’ seeming commitment to diversity and inclusion, we have given a prominent platform—a critical beat covering a pandemic disproportionately affecting people of color—to someone who chose to use language that is offensive and unacceptable by any newsroom’s standards,” they wrote. “He did so while acting as a representative for The Times, in front of high school students.”
The staffers called for an apology from McNeil, as well as a renewed investigation into his alleged remarks on the student trip and into newer complaints made by colleagues accusing him of bias against people of color since then.
By last Friday, McNeil had submitted his resignation and issued an apology for using a racial slur, which he said he repeated during a discussion with a student about consequences for using the n-word.
“I should not have done that,” wrote McNeil. “Originally, I thought the context in which I used this ugly word could be defended. I now realize it cannot.”
“We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent,” Baquet and Managing Editor Joseph Kahn also wrote to staffers on Friday, according to the Washington Post.
Predictably, the official story has since become one about the apparent injustice of a reporter losing his job because of undue alarm over “a single word.”
PEN America suggested as much in a statement about McNeil’s resignation. “The Times’ readers depend upon its journalists and editors to be able to carry out their work without fear that a lone errant statement may cost them their job.
“Recognizing that words can be jarring and hurtful even absent any ill-will, intent and context are nonetheless essential to evaluating the import of speech and determining what consequences it should bear. For reporter Donald McNeil to end his long career, apparently as a result of a single word, risks sending a chilling message,” the statement continued.
The Daily Beast’s report on the resignation even accuses Nikole Hannah-Jones of telling Times leadership she would call the parents and students who first complained about McNeil’s remarks to find out exactly what was said.
Never mind that Hannah-Jones denies saying anything of the sort, sharing on Twitter on Monday that she never called for McNeil’s termination or resignation but asked for transparency about the “multiple accusations” against him and wanted to talk to sources within the Times about exactly what he was alleged to have said during the trip with students. The Root has reached out to Hannah-Jones for further comment.
Never mind that the actual letter from the 150 staffers at the Times (which the Daily Beast coded as “irate”) never called for McNeil to be ousted but rather asked for further transparency into the allegations, the Times policies around non-discrimination and anti-harassment and a probe into how racial bias can influence reporting.
Never mind all of that, when the complex story of how we deal with issues of race in the workplace can be easily flattened to lay the blame on “wokeness” and the fallout from the revelation of McNeil’s own actions, which he evidently chose to respond to by resigning, can falsely be attributed to a so-called “mob” of Black reporters out for blood.
Meanwhile, the other allegations about the questionable comments McNeil felt comfortable saying on the job to a bunch of high students have been elided in order to promote a story of Black people and their woke feelings going on the attack.
How this situation has played out spells a continuing rocky road for any of us trying to address racism in America’s institutions going forward.