New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet walked back on Thursday a controversial statement of policy he and the newspaper’s managing editor made last week signifying the paper does “not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.”
“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,” Baquet said at a staff meeting, according to CNN. “It was a deadline mistake and I regret it.”
“Of course, intent matters when we are talking about language in journalism,” he continued. “The author and his purpose also matter, the moment matters.”
The newspaper’s top editor made the change amid a groundswell of criticism from both employees and those outside the company that was spurred on by the cancel culture sacking of veteran Times journalist, Donald McNeil Jr.
Last week, the Times fired McNeil, a science and health reporter who worked 47 years for the company, after he simply repeated back a racial epithet in response to a high school student’s question during a New York Times educational trip to Peru in 2019.
McNeil had apologized for the incident, explaining in a statement that he originally thought his use of the word was defensible since he used it without malicious intent, but later came to realize it was “deeply offensive and hurtful” and abused the trust of his colleagues.
Any explanation, no matter how genuine, would ultimately not be good enough for the Times, who abruptly mandated that racial slurs ought never to be used, “regardless of intent,” and that one slip-up would require that one forfeit their livelihood.
After many on social media torched the newspaper over the policy, they finally stepped away from it Thursday, nearly a week later.
“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,” Baquet added in the staff meeting.
“It should not be used for effect,” he said. “It comes with a grim history and it’s a blow to the gut … each use should be put to the test. That’s why we have a style book. But the main thing is of course intent matters.”
But it should be noted that the company didn’t exactly bail on the policy without some kicking and screaming.
When Bret Stephens, a conservative opinion columnist for the paper wrote a piece criticizing the policy and the company’s firing of McNeil, Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger apparently “spiked” it, causing further uproar.
In the spiked column, now published in full by the New York Post, Stephens argued that “a hallmark of injustice is indifference to intention … most of what is cruel, intolerant, stupid and misjudged in life stems from that indifference.”
“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,” he added.