Bret Stephens wrote a column about the ouster of his New York Times colleague Donald McNeil Jr., but it will never see the light of day. A Times spokesperson confirmed to TheWrap that the column, which was first reported to exist Thursday, was not run at the decision of an editor.
The news first came amid Thursday’s “State of the Times” town hall, which addressed internal division over the resignations of McNeil and audio producer Andy Mills, both of which happened last week for separate reasons. Leadership addressed the division — which sees some Times staffers angry that the paper knew of accusations of misconduct against both men but did nothing until outcry earlier this month and other staffers alarmed about “cancel culture” — and its own response to the departures.
Meanwhile, NBC News’ Dylan Byers tweeted that Stephens was alleging “that publisher A.G. Sulzberger ‘spiked’ his column that was supposed to run on Monday morning in which he took issue with NYT’s handling of the Donald J. McNeil case.”
A representative for the Times, however, told TheWrap that the decision came from opinion editor Kathleen Kingsbury. “We kill columns all the time for various reasons,” she told CNN’s Oliver Darcy. “The bar is especially high for columns that could reflect badly on colleagues. And we decided that this column didn’t reach that bar.”
According to Byers, the issue at the heart of Stephens’ column was the public handling of McNeil’s ouster, which came after The Daily Beast reported he used the N-word on a 2019 trip with students. He said he used it to describe what someone else had said and the Times revealed the incident was investigated back in 2019. Executive editor Dean Baquet also said last week, “We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent,” a statement with which Stephens took particular issue. Byers quotes Stephens’ now-shelved column as asking, “Do any of us want to live in a world, or work in a field, where intent is categorically ruled out as a mitigating factor? I hope not.”
Baquet addressed that statement during Thursday’s town hall.
“In our zeal to make a powerful statement about our workplace culture, we ham-handedly said something you rightfully saw as an oversimplification of one of the most difficult issues of our lives. It was a deadline mistake and I regret it,” he said. “Of course intent matters when we are talking about language in journalism. The author and his purpose also matter, the moment matters. The slur we’ve been discussing is a vile one. I’ve been called it. But it appears in our pages and it will no doubt appear in our pages again.”
One source with knowledge of the Times’ editorial process pointed out that Stephens’ columns criticizing the institution have been published before, so the piece’s failure to get published is a reflection of its quality, not editors’ own concerns about being critical of the paper. Kingsbury was also aware that Baquet planned to clarify his use of the word “intent” during the “State of the Times” meeting.
Stephens did not immediately return a request for comment.