McNeil speaks out — at length

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.

New York Times diversity report describes a challenging workplace culture

Not so diverse: The New York Times in 1942. Photo in the public domain.

The New York Times has released the results of an internal study that finds the paper’s internal culture is often hostile to people of color and women. The entire report is here. A key excerpt:

Our current culture and systems are not enabling our work force to thrive and do its best work. This is true across many types of difference: race, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, socioeconomic background, ideological viewpoints and more. But it is particularly true for people of color, many of whom described unsettling and sometimes painful day-to-day workplace experiences.

Tom Jones of Poynter has been reading it over, and he finds some telling statistics: 48% of hires in 2020 were people of color, bringing the percentage from 27% to 34% in the past six years. The percentage has risen from 17% to 23% in leadership positions, and the percentage of women employed by the Times has risen from 45% to 52%.

I suspect those numbers are better than what you’d find at most news organizations, although I also suspect that the Times — among the very few that’s been staffing up in recent years — could have done better still. And I heartily agree with Jones’ conclusion: “It also would be good to see all news organizations do the kind of self-evaluation that the Times has done and work toward making sure their newsroom cultures are where they should be.”

We can start with The Boston Globe, Boston’s public media outlets and television news operations.

Finally, of note: One of the three co-authors of the report is deputy managing editor Carolyn Ryan, an alum of the Globe and, before that, The Patriot Ledger of Quincy — and the subject of a profile in Insider this week that touts her as a possible successor to executive editor Dean Baquet.

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Dueling takes on the state’s companion vaccine program

From today’s New York Times:
And today’s Boston Globe:

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.

Long knives, short tempers — and ridiculous theories about the election

Gen. Michael Flynn. Photo (cc) 2016 by Gage Skidmore.

On Monday, The New York Times published the results of a massive investigation into Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the results of the election.

Today comes the tragicomic conclusion: a report by Axios on an insane meeting that took place at the White House on Dec. 18 at which the conspiracy-addled lawyer Sidney Powell tried to get herself named a special counsel to investigate Dominion voting machines while Gen. Michael Flynn (he of the two guilty pleas) and the White House staff screamed profanities at each other.

The reporters are Jonathan Swan, who conducted a hard-hitting interview of Trump last year, and Zachary Basu. The whole thing is so crazy that it’s hard to pick any one excerpt, but this will do. Below, Byrne is Patrick Byrne, the chief executive of Overstock.com and a Trump backer. Herschmann is Eric Herschmann, a White House senior adviser. Patrick Cipollone was the White House counsel. Swain and Basu write:

At one point, with Flynn shouting, Byrne raised his hand to talk. He stood up and turned around to face Herschmann. “You’re a quitter,” he said. “You’ve been interfering with everything. You’ve been cutting us off.”

“Do you even know who the fuck I am, you idiot?” Herschmann snapped back.

“Yeah, you’re Patrick Cipollone,” Byrne said.

“Wrong! Wrong, you idiot!”

Herschmann and others who were at least partly tethered to reality were afraid that Trump was going to go along with Powell and unleash her upon state and local election officials. As Swain and Basu write, “Trump expressed skepticism at various points about Powell’s theories, but he said, ‘At least she’s out there fighting.'”

In the end, though, Trump was somehow coaxed into listening to reason. How bad was it? Toward the end, we see that Rudy Giuliani actually had a calming effect on the situation, which is surely the first time anyone has said that about him in many years.

Correction: I originally misspelled Jonathan Swan’s name.

Tough words for James Bennet

Jennifer Barnett, a former managing editor of The Atlantic, absolutely eviscerates James Bennet (whom she does not name) in this smoking essay on Medium.

Bennet is the former Atlantic editor who became editorial-page editor of The New York Times — only to be forced out last summer after a series of screw-ups, culminating in his running a terrible op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton that he later admitted he hadn’t read before publication.

Bennet was replaced at the Times by his deputy, Kathleen Kingsbury, at first on an interim basis and, last week, officially.

I’m guessing that we’re going to hear more about this.

Lauren Wolfe, The New York Times and the never-ending dilemma over social media

Photo (cc) 2019 by Andreas Komodromos

In what should be a surprise to no one, follow-ups show that The New York Times  fired freelance editor Lauren Wolfe after several previous incidents in which the paper’s editors believed she had violated social-media guidelines. It wasn’t just the “I have chills” tweet about President Biden. But the question remains: What was the big deal? As Joe Pompeo of Vanity Fair puts it:

As the situation snowballed, there was also a palpable yearning for more information about what was behind the Times’ decision. Was Wolfe a sacrificial lamb thrown overboard in the face of bad faith criticism? Had the Times overreacted to what could be interpreted as an expression of relief given the authoritarian bullet America just dodged? Or was there more to the story?

The answer, Pompeo says, citing “a number of senior Times sources”: “Wolfe had previously been cautioned about her social media behavior. A manager gave her a warning months ago after staffers expressed discomfort with certain tweets she was told bordered on being political.”

Tom Jones of Poynter argues that Wolfe’s termination raises questions that need further exploration:

This incident once again brings into question the social media presence of journalists. When a journalist tweets, do they represent just themselves or the organization they work for, as well? Can someone’s work be questioned over something they post on Facebook? Is a journalist always “on the clock,” even when they are tweeting personal thoughts?

Finally, Wolfe herself speaks to Erik Wemple of The Washington Post. And what she has to say casts doubt on the idea that her previous transgressions played any role in her firing. Wemple writes:

Months ago, recalls Wolfe, she received a warning from the same manager about her Twitter activity; as an example, he cited a tweet in which, Wolfe says, she’d connected the resistance of conservative men to wearing masks to “toxic masculinity.” She deleted the tweet. But, according to Wolfe, the manager said her posts in general were “borderline” and that other Times staffers had done “worse.” Last week’s tweet was “the only reason they fired me,” Wolfe says.

Wemple also describes as “dreadful” the Times statement (see previous item) in which management said it would respect her privacy while not respecting her privacy. It surely is that. By insinuating that Wolfe was fired for something much worse than the “chills” tweet, the Times harmed Wolfe’s reputation and made it more difficult for her to move on to her next job.

The Times is known for having strict guidelines about its straight-news journalists expressing opinions on social media. If, in fact, Wolfe proved incorrigible after previous warnings, then I suppose the Times acted appropriately, even though it still strikes me as an extreme reaction to a pretty harmless tweet.

It also appears that Times management reacted as much to the outrage stirred up by the gadfly journalist Glenn Greenwald and others as it did to Wolfe’s actual tweet. According to Pompeo, Wolfe was told that her tweet had sparked an outcry, and “we can’t have that.” For what it’s worth, Greenwald says Wolfe shouldn’t have been fired.

Earlier:

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(Not) getting to the bottom of why The New York Times fired Lauren Wolfe

For journalists, Twitter is a seductive and dangerous place. It’s a forum in which to see and be seen. Editors encourage journalists to use it in order to promote their work and build their personal brands, which in turn redound to the benefit of their employer. But the way to do that is to be edgy — and journalists who are too edgy often find themselves without a net, and sometimes without a job.

The latest journalist to run afoul of these contradictions (maybe, as we’ll see below) is Lauren Wolfe, who, until last week, was a freelance editor for The New York Times. Yashir Ali, who writes for New York magazine and HuffPost, tweeted last Thursday that Wolfe had been dismissed for tweeting “I have chills” as Joe Biden’s plane was landing in advance of the inauguration. She also tweeted and then deleted criticism that Donald Trump had refused to send a military jet to pick Biden up; that turned out not to be true.

Liberals and fellow journalists on Twitter erupted in outrage over Wolfe’s dismissal, seeing it as a sign that the Times is twisting itself into knots to avoid being accused of bias. For instance, Wesley Lowery, who left The Washington Post after he and executive editor Marty Baron clashed over Lowery’s social-media posts, tweeted, “We allow critics — of good and bad faith — to hang us by our own rope when we conflate objectivity of process with individual objectivity. Someone having or expressing an opinion does not mean they are not capable of providing fair and professional coverage on a topic.” (Lowery now works for the Marshall Project, a well-regarded nonprofit that covers criminal-justice issues.)

Virginia Heffernan, a Los Angeles Times columnist who hosts the soon-to-be-retired podcast “Trumpcast,” also came to Wolfe’s defense in a thread that compared the liberties that The New York Times allowed to swashbucklers of the past like Johnny Apple and David Carr to the locked-down mode that prevails currently. She also defended a tweet by Times contributing columnist Will Wilkinson, who was fired from his position at the Niskanen Center, a think tank, for a dumb tweet in which he joked, “If Biden really wanted unity, he’d lynch Mike Pence.” Sorry, but that’s a tweet too far. Leaving aside the fact that Wilkinson was lampooning insurrectionists who really did want to kill Pence, his tweet was wildly inappropriate, as Wilkinson himself acknowledged by apologizing.

Which brings us back to the matter of Lauren Wolfe, whose tweets strike me as innocuous and in keeping with the relief most of the nation feels at the departure of a president who incited violence against Congress in an attempt to overturn the results of the election. At most, Wolfe should have been taken aside and told, “OK, enough.” But is that really why she was let go? The Times issued a murky statement that read:

There’s a lot of inaccurate information circulating on Twitter. For privacy reasons we don’t get into the details of personnel matters, but we can say that we didn’t end someone’s employment over a single tweet. Out of respect for the individuals involved, we don’t plan to comment further.

Needless to say, that does Wolfe a disservice by leading all of us to speculate what dastardly deeds she committed to warrant having her gig terminated. Ali tweeted, “There were other tweets Wolfe was warned over I’m told but so far don’t know what those tweets are.” If that’s the case, then Wolfe’s publicly getting chills over Biden could be seen as the last straw after a series of missteps. (Even so — seriously?)

In any case, there’s an argument to be made that editors shouldn’t worry about their reporters’ Twitter feeds as much as they do. The all-time classic remains a tweet by Julia Ioffe in December 2016 in which she crudely speculated that Trump was having sex with his daughter Ivanka. Ioffe had already given her notice at Politico in order to accept a job at The Atlantic. Politico terminated her employment immediately. Fortunately for Ioffe, The Atlantic honored its agreement, and she has continued to churn out good work ever since.

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Slavery, the Constitution and Frederick Douglass: What was The New York Times thinking?

Frederick Douglass

There is a bizarre omission in The New York Times’ review of James Oakes’ new book, “The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution.”

The question at the center of the book is whether the Constitution should be viewed as a pro-slavery or anti-slavery document. And the reviewer, the historian Gordon S. Wood, never mentions Frederick Douglass. Good Lord. If there was one central takeaway from David Blight’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” (2018), it’s that Douglass embraced the Constitution as a weapon with which to fight slavery, breaking with William Lloyd Garrison, who thought the Constitution was irredeemable.

Curious, I decided to dig a little deeper. And I found a review in The Washington Post by Elizabeth R. Varon of the University of Virginia. It turns out that Oakes not only mentions Douglass, but is a scholar of his views about the Constitution. Varon writes:

This book represents a shift in Oakes’s own thinking. While his 2007 study of Frederick Douglass and Lincoln, “The Radical and the Republican,” juxtaposed Douglass the crusading reformer with Lincoln the cautious politician, this volume foregrounds the commonalities between the two men. Lincoln shared with Douglass, Oakes emphasizes, an abiding belief in the abolition movement’s core principle of fundamental human equality.

Much insight is to be gained by contrasting the antislavery constitutionalism of Douglass and Lincoln with the proslavery constitutionalism of Southern enslavers.

By leaving out Douglass, Wood manages the task of writing a nearly 1,300-word essay about slavery without mentioning a single Black person by name. What was he thinking? And does anyone at the Times edit these things?

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Kathleen Kingsbury named opinion editor at The New York Times

Some pretty big news from The New York Times: Kathleen Kingsbury will become the new opinion editor, a position she’d been filling on an interim basis ever since James Bennet was pushed out for running a terrible op-ed that he later admitted he hadn’t read. From publisher A.G. Sulzberger’s announcement:

For those who have worked alongside Kathleen, this announcement will come as little surprise. She’s a natural leader, fearless journalist and creative innovator. She has a wide-ranging intellect, with a passion for exploring the ideas and arguments shaping the world today. A former foreign correspondent, business reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer herself, Kathleen is known in the department for championing her colleagues and elevating their work.

Kingsbury is smart and accomplished, having won a 2015 Pulitzer for editorial writing when she was with The Boston Globe.