Hours after it came out that the New York Times had spiked a column in which Bret Stephens complained about the way the paper handled the ouster of star reporter Donald McNeil Jr., the New York Post has published the article in full.
In an editor’s note preceding the column, the Post took pains to distance Stephens himself from the publication of his spiked column. “The piece has circulated among Times staffers and others — and it was from one of them, not Stephens himself, that The Post obtained it,” the note said.
McNeil’s ouster came after The Daily Beast reported last week that he used the N-word and also made additional sexist and racist comments on a 2019 trip with students. When the story came out, the Times said it had investigated the incident in 2019 and had taken unspecified disciplinary measures. The Daily Beast’s report prompted outrage from New York Times staff and on Friday McNeil quit. In a statement accompanying his resignation, McNeil didn’t address the accusations of racist and sexist comments, and said only that he used the n-word to describe what someone else had said. McNeil apologized for that specific act.
Like McNeil, Stephens also ignored the substance of the other accusations reported by the Daily Beast, and wrote his column as though the only thing McNeil was accused of was his admitted use of the n-word.
After quoting New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet, who said regarding McNeil that “We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent,” Stephens wrote in part:
“This is not a column about the particulars of McNeil’s case. Nor is it an argument that the racial slur in question doesn’t have a uniquely ugly history and an extraordinary capacity to wound. This is an argument about three words: ‘Regardless of intent.’ Should intent be the only thing that counts in judgment? Obviously not. Can people do painful, harmful, stupid or objectionable things regardless of intent? Obviously.”
“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.”
Stephens argued that McNeil’s intent in using the word should matter as much as the usage. “What is it that journalists do, except try to perceive intent, examine motive, furnish context, explore nuance, explain varying shades of meaning, forgive fallibility, make allowances for irony and humor, slow the rush to judgment (and therefore outrage), and preserve vital intellectual distinctions.”
Stephens also compared McNeil’s use of the word while chaperoning several students to the Times printing a famous quote by Republican strategist Lee Atwater which uses the n-word repeatedly verbatim. Stephens also used the quote verbatim. “A journalism that turns words into totems — and totems into fears — is an impediment to clear thinking and proper understanding,” he said.
Stephens, like McNeil, did not acknowledge that McNeil was also accused of multiple other instances of making sexist and racist statements while chaperoning a group of students.
Earlier Thursday, NBC News’ Dylan Byers said that Stephen accused New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger of personally spiking the column. But a representative for the Times 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.”
One source with knowledge of the Times’ editorial process told TheWrap 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. According to Kingsbury, Baquet plans to clarify his use of the word “intent” during the next “State of the Times” meeting.
Stephens did not respond to an earlier request for comment from TheWrap.