By:
March 2, 2021

The controversy continues.

And gets longer. Much, much longer. Like 20,000 words longer.

Let’s start at the beginning. Earlier this month, veteran New York Times reporter Donald McNeil resigned from the paper. After 45 years at the Times, McNeil stepped down following events that happened in 2019. According to a story first broken by The Daily Beast, McNeil, among other alleged comments, reportedly used the N-word during a discussion about racist language while on a Times-sponsored trip to Peru with high school and middle school students.

Initially, Times executive editor Dean Baquet determined McNeil’s language was offensive and showed poor judgment, but he didn’t think McNeil’s intentions were “hateful or malicious.” He thought McNeil should be given “another chance.”

But when more than a hundred Times staffers questioned the Times’ handling of the incident, Times leadership agreed to look further into the matter. On Feb. 5, McNeil addressed his use of the N-word in a note to colleagues, saying, “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.”

When McNeil wrote that, he thought that would be the end of it. He assumed he would go back to being the Times’ star reporter on covering COVID-19 and making regular appearances on the popular “The Daily” podcast.

But that wasn’t the end of it. He did end up resigning.

Then Monday, McNeil released a four-part response on Medium, which you can read here: Part I, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

Settle in because it’s long. As I mentioned, it’s more than 20,000 words long.

McNeil went over everything, including what happened last month during a phone conversation with Baquet and deputy managing editor Carolyn Ryan when he turned in his apology. That’s when Baquet suggested McNeil add one more thing to that apology: his resignation. According to McNeil, Baquet told him, “You’ve lost the newsroom. A lot of your colleagues are hurt. A lot of them won’t work with you. Thank you for writing the apology. But we’d like you to consider adding to it that you’re leaving.”

McNeil’s response to Baquet: “WHAT? ARE YOU KIDDING? You want me to leave after 40-plus years? Over this? You know this is (expletive). You know you looked into it and I didn’t do the things they said I did, I wasn’t some crazy racist, I was just answering the kids’ questions.”

According to McNeil, Baquet repeated that other staffers didn’t want to work with McNeil and Ryan added, “Donald, there are other complaints that you made people uncomfortable.”

McNeil said he felt as if Baquet was twisting his arm, which Baquet denied. McNeil said he told Baquet, “I’m not just quitting like this.”

But he did quit. He claims it’s because he learned that if he stayed, he would lose his star status at the paper — meaning no more front-page stories, no more lead stories on COVID-19, no more guest spots on “The Daily.”

I reached out to the Times about McNeil’s essay and Times vice president  for communications Danielle Rhoades Ha said, “We support Donald’s right to have his say.”

About McNeil’s resignation, Rhoades Ha told The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple and confirmed to me in an email, “The decision to resign was Donald’s, and we agree it was the correct decision. Our system is based on second chances and progressive discipline, and learning from one’s mistakes. As more recent information about his behavior emerged, it became clear that Donald had not learned from his prior mistakes and could no longer effectively work in our newsroom.”

McNeil’s lengthy response is actually too long to even try to recap adequately here. I suggest you read it if you’re so inclined. He claims other allegations made during the trip — that he said racism is over and there is no such thing as white privilege —  are not true or as reported.

Among his comments, McNeil wrote, “Am I a racist? I don’t think so — after working in 60 countries over 25 years, I think I’m pretty good at judging people as individuals. But ‘am I a racist?’ is actually a harder question to answer about yourself than some self-righteous people think.”

As far as using the N-word, McNeil wrote, “Yes, I did use the word, in this context: A student asked me if I thought her high school’s administration was right to suspend a classmate of hers for using the word in a video she’d made in eighth grade. I said ‘Did she actually call someone a (offending word)? Or was she singing a rap song or quoting a book title or something?’”

He also talked about all the attention this has received from media journalists, writing, “Since January 28, I’ve been a jackal circled by jackals.”

One other passage worth mentioning here is this one: “What’s happened to me has been called a ‘witch hunt.’ It isn’t,” McNeil wrote. “It’s a series of misunderstandings and blunders. I may be the only living Times reporter who has actually covered a witch hunt — in Zimbabwe in 1997. They inevitably end worse for the accused. I’m at least getting my say.”

He’s getting his say, all right — 20,000 words worth.

More Biden criticism

White House press secretary Jen Psaki speaks to the media on Monday. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

As I wrote about in Monday’s newsletter, a U.S. intelligence report has determined that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved of the 2018 killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. However, it appears as if Salman will face no direct sanctions from President Joe Biden — a decision that has been harshly criticized.

More criticism came Monday.

In a lengthy Twitter post, Khashoggi’s fiancée Hatice Cengiz said, “If the crown prince is not punished, it will forever signal that the main culprit can get away with murder which will endanger us all and be a stain on our humanity. It will be the greatest shame for humanity if justice is in the end denied.”

Meanwhile, Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan, in a piece for the Post, wrote, “President Biden is facing his first major test of a campaign promise and, it appears, he’s about to fail it.”

Ryan also wrote, “It appears as though under the Biden administration, despots who offer momentarily strategic value to the United States might be given a ‘one free murder’ pass.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki was pressed again on Monday and said, in part, “We are going to hold them accountable. … While also recognizing there are areas we need to work together on because they are in the issue of the United States.”

From the White House

The White House announced Monday that Chris Meagher will replace T.J. Ducklo as deputy White House press secretary. Ducklo resigned last month after it was reported that he had threatened a reporter from Politico when that reporter was about to publish a story on Ducklo’s relationship with another reporter.

Meagher has worked for several Democrats, most notably Pete Buttigieg. He was Buttigieg’s presidential campaign national press secretary and was the top spokesperson at the Transportation Department, where Buttigieg is secretary.

In a statement, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, “Chris brings a depth of experience both in government and on political campaigns, as well as a commitment to engagement, to integrity and to ensuring the public has access to information, and I could not be more thrilled to welcome him as a senior member of the White House press team.”

For more details, check out Matt Viser’s story in The Washington Post.

More transparency, please

The Biden administration has restored the daily White House press conferences with White House press secretary Jen Psaki holding a briefing pretty much every weekday. However, President Biden himself has yet to hold a solo press conference.

CNN’s Brian Stelter pointed out that Biden is seen in public at various announcements, but he asked New York Times White House correspondent Katie Rogers on “Reliable Sources” about Biden not being available so far in a traditional press briefing.

“They don’t have sort of the legislative margins to really let him hold a solo press conference at a time where they need to pass such a massive (COVID-19) relief bill,” Rogers said. “They have said that he will come out and answer questions, but they’re sort of in a precarious moment with both the relief bill and the appointments they need to pass through for his cabinet.”

Meanwhile, Politico’s Anita Kumar has a new piece out with the headline, “Biden won’t release White House virtual visitor logs.”

Kumar writes, “Few bars have been set lower than the one Joe Biden has had to clear when it comes to bringing transparency back to the White House. Donald Trump has been an easy act to follow. But five weeks into office, Biden has fallen short of his former boss, Barack Obama, in several areas, and is under pressure to do more to restore confidence in the federal government following Trump’s chaotic term in the White House.”

Kumar notes the complaints include that Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’ schedules are not posted online; the White House comment line is down; there are no citizen positions on the White House website; and the White House “doesn’t plan to divulge the names of attendees of virtual meetings, which are the primary mode of interaction until the coronavirus pandemic eases.”

Kumar also mentioned the absence of a Biden press conference. Kumar adds, “For dozens of good government groups on the left and right, simply not being Trump is not enough.”

Remembering a broadcasting pioneer

The cast of CBS-TV’s “NFL Today” show pose in this undated photo. Clockwise from top left are Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, Jack Whitaker, Brent Musburger, Jayne Kennedy and Irv Cross. (AP Photo/CBS)

A sports broadcasting pioneer has died. Irv Cross, the first Black man to work full time as a sports analyst on national TV, died Sunday. He was 81.

Cross was a part of one of the legendary TV pregame shows: “The NFL Today” on CBS. That show was known for breaking barriers. It also once featured Phyllis George, one of the first women on a national sports show. George died last May.

Cross played nine seasons in the NFL as a cornerback for the Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Rams and made two Pro Bowls. But he was best known for his broadcasting work. He joined CBS in 1971 and stayed with the network until 1994. He was on “The NFL Today” from its debut in 1975 through 1989.

In 2009, Cross won the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award, which recognizes “longtime exceptional contributions to radio and television in professional football.” He was the first Black broadcaster to win that award.

In a statement, CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said, “He was a true gentleman and a trailblazer in the sports television industry and will be remembered for his accomplishments and the paths he paved for those who followed.”

Twitter’s latest stance against misinformation

Twitter already suspends and bans users for various violations, including inciting violence (just ask former President Donald Trump). Now Twitter is taking a stance on misinformation about COVID-19 vaccinations.

Twitter Safety announced Monday that “we will begin applying labels to Tweets that may contain misleading information about COVID-19 vaccines, in addition to our continued efforts to remove the most harmful COVID-19 misleading information from the service. Since introducing our COVID-19 guidance, we have removed more than 8,400 Tweets and challenged 11.5 million accounts worldwide.”

Twitter had come up with a five-strikes-and-you’re-out policy. The way it works is one strike is no account-level action; two and three strikes is a 12-hour account lock; four strikes is a seven-day account lock; and five or more strikes is a permanent suspension.

Good pushback

Good work by Fox News correspondent Gillian Turner on Monday. During a discussion about the sexual harassment allegations against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Fox News contributor Jason Chaffetz said something really dumb. And Turner wasted no time calling him out on it.

Chaffetz, a former Congressman from Utah, said, “We’ll see what the media does. They’ve been very tepid in doing this. Only the New York Post and a handful of others have covered this with the seriousness that it takes. The New York Times and other big media outlets have been far behind.”

Clearly, that’s a ridiculous statement and Turner jumped on it, saying, “But the Times broke the most recent story about the victim, Charlotte Bennett, the second woman. They broke that story. We wouldn’t even be talking about it if it wasn’t for The New York Times’ reporting. Just pointing that out.”

Chaffetz tried to wriggle out of it, but Turner did what a responsible journalist does — calls out someone in real time when they say something that is just flat-out wrong.

Speaking of the Times, check out this story (including a creepy photo of Cuomo) from Matt Flegenheimer and Jesse McKinley: “Cuomo Accused of Unwanted Advance at a Wedding: ‘Can I Kiss You?’”

Meanwhile, Gov. Cuomo’s brother, CNN’s Chris Cuomo, addressed the news to open his show on Monday night. Chris Cuomo said, “Obviously I am aware of what is going on with my brother. And obviously I cannot cover it because he is my brother. Now, of course CNN has to cover it. They have covered it extensively and they will continue to do so. I have always cared deeply about these issues and profoundly so. I just wanted to tell you that. There’s a lot of news going on that matters also. So let’s get after that.”

Media tidbits

  • NBC News’ Hallie Jackson writes about what it’s like to be a new mom during a pandemic.
  • ESPN has re-signed Rece Davis to a multi-year deal to continue being the host of “College GameDay” for both college football and basketball. He also will continue to host coverage on events such as the college football national championship and the NFL Draft, as well as doing play-by-play for college football and basketball. Davis has been with the network for more than 25 years.
  • News Corp. (and Fox News) owner Rupert Murdoch turns 90 later this month. Writing for Financial Times, Alex Barker, Anna Nicolaou and James Fontanella-Khan with “Rupert Murdoch at 90: Fox, Succession and ‘One More Big Play.’”
  • Former White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany has given her first full interview since leaving the White House. It’s with Fox News’ Harris Faulkner and will air at 11 a.m. Eastern today on “The Faulkner Focus.” McEnany told Faulkner about her feelings while watching the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6. “And then as those events transpired,” McEnany said, “it was disbelief, shock, somber, sad, horrified by the violence, and it was a very hard, difficult day in the White House, there is no doubt.”
  • ABC News announced Monday that actor and producer Sterling K. Brown will be the special guest host for the series premiere of a primetime newsmagazine called “Soul of a Nation.” The premiere will look at the racial reckoning in this country. It will include other ABC News journalists, as well as interviews with actor Danny Glover, musician John Legend and more. The six-episode series will debut tonight at 10 p.m. Eastern on ABC. Episodes can also be viewed the next day on demand and on Hulu.

Hot type

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

More resources for journalists

The Poynter Report is our daily media newsletter. To have it delivered to your inbox Monday-Friday, sign up here.

Follow us on Twitter and on Facebook.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Donate
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…
More by Tom Jones

More News

Back to News

Comments

Comments are closed.

  • I’m not sure why the most salient thing about McNeil’s response that could be found about it for a headline is a sardonic reference to its word count. That would be shoddy journalism coming from any other source but it’s particularly troubling from Poynter. It’s a jaded, biased effort that undermines the content by suggesting something negative up front. Read it if you’re “inclined”? A “journalist” is actually de-emphasizing the importance of actually reading content before making a judgement? Regardless of what you believe in this case, if you did actually read it and grasp that this is someone’s first and only response to a series of allegations that ended a 45 year career served with distinction, you’d expect and demand that it be as comprehensive, reflective and with all the receipts. That’s what McNeil did. And it’s eminently readable because he takes the time to answer the questions generated by the pack reporting that got him fired. The same pack that values reducing facts and context until it fits a narrative that’s easy to write: saints and sinners. And yet Poynter, which has fashioned itself as the arbiter of responsible and considered journalism, chooses to snigger because a journalist defends his reputation by providing important and relevant detail which anyone seeking explanations and answers is looking for. The length of McNeil’s response could have been mentioned once. But it’s in the dek, the lede, and peppered throughout this “piece”. Perhaps the author should reflect on his own writing, and just say what he’s trying to say instead of generating a lot of words to say McNeil’s defence is not worth reading unless you’re “inclined”.