By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Don McNeil is out at The New York Times; plus, more fallout from ‘Caliphate’

Don McNeil of The New York Times has been one of my trusted sources on COVID. His long conversations with Michael Barbaro on “The Daily” have been reassuring while at the same time never minimizing the dangers posed by the pandemic. Now he’s gone over a 2019 incident in which he used racially offensive language with a group of students.

There are problems here that speak to the broken culture that seems to permeate the Times. On the one hand, McNeil was quietly disciplined at the time of the incident. It seems unfair to push him out now simply because his behavior has become public. On the other hand, his explanation of what happened doesn’t hold up. As David Folkenflik of NPR writes:

In his parting letter to colleagues, McNeil said he had used a racial slur in a context that he had thought defensible at the time, but now realizes was not.

“I was asked at dinner by a student whether I thought a classmate of hers should have been suspended for a video she had made as a 12-year-old in which she used a racial slur. To understand what was in the video, I asked if she had called someone else the slur or whether she was rapping or quoting a book title. In asking the question, I used the slur itself.”

According to the Daily Beast, parents complained that McNeil had been racially offensive at several different moments [my emphasis].

McNeil’s explanation simply doesn’t square with what parents were saying.

Folkenflik also reports on further fallout from the Times’ “Caliphate” debacle. Audio producer Andy Mills is gone because he’d been accused of what Folkenflik calls “inappropriate behavior toward female colleagues” back when he was working for public radio. Yes, and, of course, helping to create a Times podcast that turned out to be based on a massive fabrication didn’t help.

Barbaro’s own behavior regarding “Caliphate,” including intervening behind the scenes on behalf of his fiancée, has come under fire from public radio stations that carry “The Daily,” with some dropping the podcast altogether. But unlike Mills and “Caliphate” host Rukmini Callimachi, who’s been demoted, Barbaro is one of the Times’ biggest stars. We’ll have to see if this story has come to a conclusion or not.

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  1. nahantjim

    The loss of Don McNeil is a terrible blow. He was one of the most trusted sources of informed and unbiased news on the pandemic. This is a loss to everyone. I don’t know exactly what the term was he may have used but I wonder if it might be the title of a book by Dick Gregory (whose name, by the way, cannot be used in the Globe Comment Section). If he was referring to what someone else said, not using it himself against or in reference to someone, I’m not sure we’re getting the whole story. What does “offensive at several different moments” mean,

    The case of Rukmini Callimachi is another puzzle. I thought the reporting she did on the Breonna Taylor case was extraordinary and far more complete than from any other source. Should I still trust THAT reporting or not?

    And back we are to the Woody Allen story, soon to be hyped on cable once again. As I commented in the Globe this morning with regard to this family squabble, “Lies are known to come from many quarters. Uncertainty reigns.”

    • Dan Kennedy

      Just from an organizational point of view, I don’t understand how you can discipline an employee and pronounce the matter over and done with, then push him out after it becomes public. I believe that McNeil is in a union. They must be licking their chops.

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