The New York Times fired science and health reporter Donald McNeil Jr. after it was reported that he used a racial epithet in front of students on an educational trip to Peru in 2019.
Initially the Times reprimanded McNeil over the incident but it was hit with criticism from those who said it was not taking the incident seriously enough. On Friday, McNeil was fired after 47 years with the company.
Social media erupted after he released a statement about the incident and apologized while explaining the innocuous circumstances of his use of the epithet.
“On a 2019 New York Times trip for Peru for high school students, 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,” he explained.
“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,” he continued.
“I should not have done that,” McNeil wrote.
“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 judgement. For that I apologize,” he continued.
“To the students on the trip, I also extend my sincerest apology. But my apology needs to be broader than that. My lapse of judgement has hurt my colleagues in Science, the hundreds of people who trusted me to work with them closely during this pandemic, the team at ‘The Daily’ that turned to me during this frightening year, and the whole institution, which put its confidence in me and expected better,” he added.
“So for offending my colleagues — and for anything I’ve done to hurt The Times, which is an institution I love and whose mission I believe in and try to serve — I am sorry,” McNeil concluded. “I let you all down.”
Many on social media were outraged that a journalist with a celebrated 47-year career was undone by what using an racial slur in an unintentionally offensive manner.
“This reads like a confession procured by the Khmer Rouge. It’s both ridiculous and terrifying,” replied Andrew Sullivan.
“A culture that lacks grace is both punitive and miserable. Does intent matter? Does forgiveness exist?” asked David French.
“It is now official NYT policy that for some words, intent does not matter, and it only takes one strike to sink a 47-year career,” said Reason editor-at-large Matt Welch.
“This reads like a Bolshevik at his own show trial admitting he’d betrayed the revolution even though he never meant to betray the revolution because he loves the revolution,” said Peter Savodnik of Vanity Fair.