Where is Slate’s old “series saver” when you need it? Don McNeil has written a four-part blog post on his departure from The New York Times that Medium says will take you 82 minutes to read. McNeil resigned after it came to light that he’d used the N-word during a trip with students to Peru.
The Nieman Journalism Lab’s Sarah Scire last week spoke with The New York Times’ recently named opinion editor, Kathleen Kingsbury. It’s an interesting conversation that defies easy summary, but I was struck that Kingsbury now says she and the Times “ended up confusing people” when they endorsed two presidential candidates, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, in last year’s Democratic primaries.
More than anything, I think Kingsbury represents steady leadership after the tumultuous James Bennet era, often caricatured as coming to an abrupt end over the infamous op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton but that was in fact — as Scire points out — punctuated by numerous lapses in judgment. Kingsbury demonstrated that steadiness last week when she killed a piece by columnist Bret Stephens. If the commentary, an n-word-filled defense of Don McNeil, had run, critics would be wondering if Kingsbury were up to the position. (Stephens’ point, such as it was, is that it ought to be considered acceptable to quote others using the n-word as long as there was no racist intent.)
I was also interested to see that Kingsbury and publisher A.G. Sulzberger “tend to talk daily.” The rule of thumb for good publishers is that they should stay out of the newsroom but that involvement in the opinion section is appropriate. John and Linda Henry are certainly involved in The Boston Globe’s opinion operation. On the other hand, Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos is known to be as hands-off with opinion as he is with news coverage. Sulzberger is entitled to have his say, but maybe he ought to back off and let Kingsbury do her job.
I had a long interview with Kingsbury several years ago, when she was the Globe’s managing editor for digital. She struck me then as capable and creative. The Times’ gain was definitely the Globe’s loss.
Correction: Kingsbury objected to my original characterization that she had said the Times made a mistake by not endorsing just one of the Democratic candidates. “I still believe choosing the two candidates was the right thing to do,” she says. I’ve updated this post to reflect that.
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.