NY Times spikes column that criticized paper’s handling of N-word controversy
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The New York Times reportedly spiked a column from its own opinion writer Bret Stephens that criticized the controversial ouster of veteran reporter Donald McNeil over his use of the N-word.
McNeil, the paper’s coronavirus reporter and a 45-year veteran of the paper, resigned Friday over remarks he made to a group of teenage students during a Times-sponsored education trip to Peru in 2019. A war has since been raging inside the Times, pitting staffers who demanded McNeil’s exit against those who accused the Times of caving to a mob.
In an internal email to colleagues this week, Stephens reportedly said he had written a column defending McNeil that was slated to run Monday morning — only to see it spiked by Times publisher AG Sulzberger himself.
“If you’re wondering why it wasn’t in the paper, it’s because AG Sulzberger spiked it,” he wrote, according to the Daily Beast, which obtained a copy of the email.
In the column tentatively titled “Regardless of Intent,” Stephens questioned Times editor Dean Baquet’s statement at the time of McNeil’s resignation that “We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.”
“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?” Stephens asked according to journalist Dylan Byers, who first broke the story on Twitter.
“Every serious moral philosophy, every decent legal system, and every ethical organization cares deeply about intention,” Stephens wrote. “It is the difference between murder and manslaughter. It is an aggravating or extenuating factor in judicial settings. It is a cardinal consideration in pardons (or at least it was until Donald Trump got in on the act). It’s an elementary aspect of parenting, friendship, courtship and marriage.”
“A hallmark of injustice,” Stephens aded, “is indifference to intention.”
In an interview with the Daily Beast, Times opinion editor Kathleen Kingsbury disputed Stephens’ account of the column getting spiked, saying that she consulted with Sulzberger, but that it was ultimately her decision.
“I have an especially high bar of running any column that could reflect badly on a colleague and I didn’t feel that this piece rose to that level,” Kingsbury told the site. “Bret and I had a professional conversation to kill the column on Monday night and he expressed his disappointment and we moved on,” she said.
Stephens couldn’t immediately be reached for comment on Thursday.
In a Thursday statement to staffers, Baquet walked back his comments about “intent,” saying they were made “ham-handedly” and were an “oversimplification” that he chalked up to a “deadline mistake.”
“Of course intent matters when we are talking about language in journalism. The author and his purpose also matter, the moment matters. 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.
“It should not be used for effect. 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.”
Current and former staffers have been locked in heated debate since McNeil’s removal last week over whether it was justified, including on Twitter and in private Facebook group posts reviewed by conservative Web site Washington Free Beacon.
Initially, McNeil had been reprimanded for his comments during the Peru trip. But the Daily Beast subsequently reported that parents and students on the trip were upset, claiming McNeil had made racist and sexist remarks.
That prompted a group of 150 journalists to write to Baquet demanding further action be taken. As the controversy raged, the company announced that McNeil had resigned. It also released a statement from McNeil that said he initially did not understand how hurtful his use of the N-word had been and he was sorry to have uttered it.
The Washington Free Beacon, meanwhile, pointed out that The Times’ recently used the N-word in its own reporting on Princeton classics professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta. And Pulitzer Prize-winning colleague Nikole Hannah-Jones, the reporter behind the controversial 1619 Project, has recently used it in tweets.
When Washington Free Beacon asked Hannah-Jones about the discrepancy, she reportedly tweeted out the reporter’s inquiry, including his cell phone number — in violation of the site’s terms of service. She then wiped out her entire Twitter history — a move that the paper subsequently defended.
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