February 16, 2021

We’re now finding out even more about the latest New York Times controversy and we’re learning about it because of … The New York Times. Specifically, we’re discovering more because of Times media columnist Ben Smith, who is continuing to prove that he has been one of the Times’ best hires in years.

His “Media Equation” column has become a must-read and his latest about the Donald McNeil controversy provides previously unknown details that shine a brighter light on all that went down.

Just to catch up those who aren’t familiar with what happened: McNeil, a Times science writer and leading COVID-19 reporter, resigned last week. The Daily Beast broke the story that McNeil used the N-word in a conversation about race while serving as a guide on a Times-sponsored trip to Peru in 2019 for high school and middle school students. He was initially suspended, but ended up stepping down after more than 100 Times staffers wrote a letter criticizing how the Times handled the situation. That led to a further investigation by the Times and, then, McNeil’s resignation.

Smith’s latest column digs further into the details. He talked with students on that trip — including Sophie Shepherd, who was 17 at the time. Shepherd told Smith about conversations she had with McNeil, as well as being at the lunch when McNeil used the N-word while discussing that word in the context of racism.

Another student on the trip told Smith, “I’m very used to people — my grandparents or people’s parents — saying things they don’t mean that are insensitive. 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.”

Shepherd told Smith that McNeil seemed disconnected from the students throughout the trip, adding, “There was this atmosphere where people didn’t like him. He was kind of a grumpy old guy.”

But then Shepherd revealed a stunner. In another conversation about racial discrimination, Shepherd said McNeil told her 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 wrote, “Ms. Shepherd said she tried to argue, but he talked over her whenever she interjected, their voices getting louder and attracting the attention of other students, two of whom confirmed her account of the conversation.”

Smith reached out to McNeil about Shepherd’s recollections of their conversations. McNeil told Smith in an email that he isn’t responding until he has officially left the Times on March 1 and, “I’m sure we’ll have different memories of conversations that took place that long ago.”

There’s more.

Smith writes that Times executive editor Dean Baquet was furious and wanted to fire McNeil as soon as he read the complaints about the trip.

Smith wrote, “But the union played its traditional role, fighting aggressively to protect him. The union, a person involved in the conversations said, was ready to take The Times to arbitration if the company attempted to terminate Mr. McNeil for his conduct on the trip. Mr. McNeil received a formal reprimand instead.”

Smith went on to write that McNeil took over “the relatively unglamorous public health beat” and openly spoke of taking a buyout the next time the Times offered them.

What changed? The coronavirus.

McNeil became the Times’ leading voice on the pandemic — writing stories, appearing on CNN and becoming a regular guest on the Times’ very successful “The Daily” podcast.

There’s much more to this whole story, so be sure to check out Smith’s column.

And read Smith regularly — he might be the best media columnist in the country.

Now, on to some of the other important links and media stories ….


In Monday’s newsletter, I linked to a superb video investigation from The New York Times. Regrettably, I credited the wrong news outlet. I’m sorry for the error. If you missed it, here’s outstanding work from The New York Times’ Christiaan Triebert, Ben Decker, Derek Watkins, Arielle Ray and Stella Cooper in “First They Guarded Roger Stone. Then They Joined the Capitol Attack.”

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at

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