By:
February 8, 2021

Two prominent journalists have resigned from The New York Times in recent days.

First, there was Donald McNeil Jr. He was the science and health reporter — and one of the Times’ leading reporters on COVID-19. He resigned over an incident that happened in 2019. The Daily Beast broke the story that McNeil, while serving as a guide on a Times-sponsored trip to Peru for high school and middle school students, used the N-word. Initially, Times executive editor Dean Baquet authorized an investigation about the trip and determined McNeil’s language was offensive and showed poor judgment, but he didn’t think McNeil’s intentions were “hateful or malicious.” He determined McNeil should be given “another chance.”

Days after that decision, a group of Times staffers (well more than 100) sent a letter to publisher A.G. Sulzberger that criticized the Times’ handling of the situation. Times management, including Baquet, responded by saying they largely agreed with the letter and would investigate further. Soon after, McNeil resigned.

According to New York Times media reporter Marc Tracy, McNeil sent a message to staff on Friday saying he used the racial slur while talking with a student about the suspension of a classmate who had used the N-word.

McNeil wrote, “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. … 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. I let you all down.”

Meanwhile, the other departure was that of Andy Mills, an audio journalist who helped create the wildly successful “The Daily” podcast. Mills also was the producer and co-host of “Caliphate” — and it was that podcast that could have led to Mills’ departure from the Times. “Caliphate,” a podcast about the Islamic State, ultimately had serious flaws — the biggest being that much of it was based on a source who was likely a fabricator.

However, in an online post announcing his resignation, Mills said “Caliphate” was not the reason for his resignation. Mills said no mistakes on “Caliphate” were acceptable, but also wrote, “When it came to fact-checking support for the project, the Times’ leadership told us that they had their own internal system in place for stories of this nature. That system broke down. And they did not blame us. In fact, throughout The Times’ reexamination of ‘Caliphate,’ they told our production team that we’d engaged in rigorous and careful journalism. One masthead editor even made it a point to tell me: ‘I won’t let you blame yourself.’”

But as all of this was going on, Mills wrote that his lack of punishment over “Caliphate” might have been described as some as coming down to “entitlement and male privilege”

“That accusation,” Mills wrote, “gave some the opportunity to resurface my past personal conduct.”

Mills then addressed incidents that happened while he worked at WNYC and before the Times.

“I have made mistakes that I wish I could take back,” Mills wrote, “Nine years ago, when I first moved to New York City, I regularly attended monthly public radio meet up parties where I looked for love and eventually earned a reputation as a flirt. Eight years ago during a team meeting, I gave a colleague a back rub. Seven years ago I poured a drink on a coworker’s head at a drunken bar party. I look back at those actions with extraordinary regret and embarrassment.”

Mills said he was punished at WNYC, changed his behavior, never had another incident and was upfront with the Times before being hired there. However, Mills claims many on Twitter exaggerated or lied about his past behavior.

Mills wrote, “As the pressure of this online campaign has grown to encompass some staffers of The Times, it has led to a climate where, even though I still love the mission of this important institution, I feel it is in the best interest of both myself and my team that I leave the company at this time. I do this with no joy and a heavy heart.”

This piece originally appeared in The Poynter Report, our daily newsletter for everyone who cares about the media. Subscribe to The Poynter Report here.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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