New York Times media columnist Ben Smith’s “Media Equation” column revealed more details regarding the ignominious ouster of veteran science reporter Donald McNeil, the paper’s coronavirus guru.
Smith correctly saw symbolism in the story of an old-school liberal journalist being overthrown by young wokesters who disapprove of his supposed reactionary views and citing of the N-word when addressing use of the slur by another teenager. The paper has already installed liberal Twitter hysterics in charge of editing. Now the Times has put privileged woke teenagers (and its pool of future reporters) in charge of Human Resources.
In “Why the Morality Plays Inside The Times Persist,” Smith gives the lowdown on the fall of McNeil, whose forced resignation cost the paper it's most experienced voice on a vital beat. It culminated in Peru:
And then there was the trip to Peru that summer. The parents of adventurous young meritocrats paid $5,490 (plus airfare) for two weeks studying “Public Health and Development in the Andes.”
On that trip, the reporter, Donald G. McNeil Jr., got into a series of heated arguments with students, none of them Black, on the charged question of race. Their complaints would ultimately end his career as a high-profile public health reporter for The Times, and again put The Times at the center of the national argument over journalism and racism and labor….
Smith’s main source is one of the students, Sophie Shepherd.
She was 17 at the time, and had just finished her senior year at Phillips Academy Andover, a boarding school sometimes rated America’s best. She’s the kind of teenager who is excited to talk to a New York Times correspondent about public health, and perhaps to put the adventure on a résumé….
The self-impressed, resume-building teen took it upon herself to correct the veteran health journalist, who she was presumably in Peru to learn from.
At lunch that day, she said she sat down the table from Mr. McNeil at a cafe overlooking the town’s narrow streets, where he was talking to another student when he uttered the N-word, and used the word in the context of a discussion of racism. Some of the teenagers responded almost reflexively, she said, to object to his use of the word in any context.
She sounds fun:
“I’m very used to people -- my grandparents or people’s parents -- saying things they don’t mean that are insensitive,” another student, who was then 17 and is now attending an Ivy League college, told me. “You correct them, you tell them, ‘You’re not supposed to talk like that,’ and usually people are pretty apologetic and responsive to being corrected. And he was not.”
On the walk over, she said, she talked about her favorite class at Andover, a history of American education that covered racial discrimination. He responded, she recalled, that “it’s frustrating, because Black Americans keep blaming the system, but racism is over, there’s nothing against them anymore -- they can get out of the ghetto if they want to.”
Smith suggested McNeil was a victim both of workplace politics and left-wing political correctness, while posing a hypothetical question whose answer isn’t really in doubt.
The questions about The Times’s identity and political leanings are real; the differences inside the newsroom won’t be easily resolved. But the paper needs to figure out how to resolve these issues more clearly: Is The Times the leading newspaper for like-minded, left-leaning Americans? Or is it trying to hold what seems to be a disappearing center in a deeply divided country? Is it Elizabeth Warren or Joe Biden? One thing that’s clear is that these questions probably aren’t best arbitrated through firings or resignations freighted with symbolic meaning, or hashed out inside the human resources department.
The paper more or less announced it was jettisoning political balance when it came to Donald Trump on its front page in an August 2016 manifesto by then-media reporter Jim Rutenberg. That process has only accelerated during “Russiagate,” the pandemic, and the summer’s violent racial protests.