New York Times reporter Donald McNeil Jr. is leaving the paper after he used the N-word during a trip with high school students in 2019, the Times’ executive editor Dean Baquet and managing editor Joseph Kahn said on Friday.
“We are writing to let you know that Donald McNeil Jr. will be leaving the company,” Baquet and Kahn wrote in a note to staff. “We feel this is the right next step.” They added, “We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.”
McNeil, a prominent health and science reporter at the paper covering COVID-19, apologized to the Times’ staff and the students on the trip for using the slur but explained the situation further.
“I was asked at a 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,” McNeil said in his note to the staff. “I should not have done that. Originally, I thought the context in which I used this ugly word could be defended. I now realize that it cannot. It is deeply offensive and hurtful. The fact that I even thought I could defend it itself showed extraordinarily bad judgment. For that I apologize.”
The paper’s management has been under significant pressure — including a letter sent by dozens of staffers earlier this week — to take stronger action against McNeil after announcing last week that the reporter had been “disciplined” for his interactions with students during a Times-branded student trip to Peru which he led in 2019.
Baquet and Khan acknowledged the staffers who spoke up: “To those of you who have reached out to us with your honest and sometimes painful feelings about this incident, we thank you.”
Just last week, Baquet took a more tolerant view of McNeil’s future at the paper. “When I first heard the story, I was outraged and expected I would fire him. I authorized an investigation and concluded his remarks were offensive and that he showed extremely poor judgment, but that it did not appear to me that his intentions were hateful or malicious,” he wrote to staffers. “I believe that in such cases people should be told they were wrong and given another chance. He was formally disciplined. He was not given a pass.”
The pressure campaign arose after the Daily Beast reported that students who attended the trip, and their parents, had said McNeil made other disrespectful comments about Black teenagers, used the N-word and claimed that white supremacy did not exist.
McNeil, a science and health reporter who joined the Times in 1976, is one of the paper’s top journalists covering the COVID-19 pandemic and most recently won the 2020 John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism from the Columbia Journalism School.