Where Do We Draw the Line? A Look Into the New York Times and Cancel Culture
A few weeks ago, the New York Times lost two renowned journalists after controversy of past behavior sparked criticisms from social media and within the organization itself, but were their departures justified?
On Feb. 5, the executive editor of the New York Times, Dean Baquet, announced the resignation of Donald G. McNeil Jr, a Times veteran science reporter best known for his reporting on the coronavirus, and Andy Mills, an audio journalist who contributed to the creation of “The Daily” and produced a 2018 podcast called “Caliphate”.
Over the past several years, the Times has selected top reporters from the organization to travel along with high-school students and serve as subject guides for Time-sponsored trips. In 2019, McNeil happened to be one of these guides for an educational excursion to Peru. On Jan. 28, 2021, The Daily Beast revealed troubling accounts of multiple students who accused McNeil of making racist and sexist remarks; two students also allege his use of the “n-word” and believe he implied white privilege does not exist.
This prompted Dean Baquet and the rest of the senior staff at the Times to take action and issue a statement a week before Feb. 5, where he defended McNeil by giving him a second chance. “I authorized an investigation and concluded his remarks were offensive and that he showed extremely poor judgment,” he wrote, “but that it did not appear to me that his intentions were hateful or malicious.”
Everything seemed to be resolved until Feb. 3 where a letter from 150 New York Times staffers called for another investigation, where they assert that ever since the controversy was publicized, “current and former employees have suggested that he also has shown bias against people of color in his work and in interactions with colleagues over a period of years,” though, they do not provide any examples of this.
As a result, another investigation ensued by Baquet, Publisher A.G. Sulzberger, and chief executive Meredith Kopit Levien, who promised they were determined to “getting this right. You will see results.”
The results came two days later on Feb. 5. In an emailed apology, McNeil explained:
On a 2019 New York Times trip to Peru for high school students, I was asked at dinner by a student whether I thought a classmate of hers should have been suspended for a video she had made as a 12-year-old in which she used a racial slur. To understand what was in the video, I asked if she had called someone else the slur or whether she was rapping or quoting a book title. In asking the question, I used the slur itself.
Erik Wemple of the Washington Post investigated further into the story and uncovered a little more context we can work off of. Wemple interviewed six of the students who participated in the excursion, where they delineate McNeil scoffing at cultural appropriation and “troubling impressions” of his view of white supremacy. One student also detailed a discussion McNeil had regarding high incarceration rates of African Americans, where McNeil argued that if they committed the crime, then they must take responsibility for it — and that it is not a product of an oppressive power structure; the student who recalled the conversation stated that McNeil did not degrade African Americans.
It is still hard to differentiate between the truth and misconceptions students may have had. Two pieces of the puzzle would make it more clear as to exactly what went down: McNeil’s perspective and further exploration amongst the Times employees who claim McNeil has shown bias against people of color in the workplace. Unfortunately, we will likely never get those two sides for the matter has already been resolved, even though the full story hasn’t been disclosed.
McNeil’s resignation came to fruition the same day when Baquet and Managing Editor Joseph Kahn announced his departure from the Times, and issued a rather poorly thought-out statement saying, “We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent”, completely flip-flopping from the prior statement, where Baquet wrote, “It did not appear to me that his intentions were hateful or malicious.”
The position of “intent does not matter” is a very dangerous stance. If intent no longer matters, should we ban literature that uses the “n-word” or any other controversial subject matter in schools? If the effect is all that matters, how is anything controversial supposed to be covered? It is even more troubling for a news organization to take this position because it could be argued that a majority of their content should be taken down. Should a journalist not report on white supremacy because it may “trigger” individuals or it may convert people to the movement? Should the news not cover any more violent crimes because it may influence other people to commit violent actions?
The obvious answer is, yes, the news should be able to cover complicated topics because their intention isn’t to convert people to white supremacy or influence people to commit crimes but to inform people of the world. If the intent is meaningless, then journalists might as well pack up their bags and start looking for another job because the effect of anything they report on could cause a stir in any community that hears it.
In situations like the McNeil case, we should look at both the intent and the effect of his actions. How did he mean to come across versus how he actually came across? We shouldn’t completely throw away the intent just like we shouldn’t throw away the effect. Both are very important when looking at how a person’s behavior should be disciplined or judged.
Audio journalist Andy Mills was also put up on the chopping block after a past controversy surrounding him was reignited across social media.
In late December, the podcast Mills was co-hosting, “Caliphate,” was discontinued after episodes on the Islamic State were criticized for putting too much credibility in false or exaggerated narratives in one of the individuals interviewed for the podcast, according to a Times editors’ note published in 2018.
After a more than two month-long investigation, the failings of the podcast were attributed to institutional mistakes, according to Dean Baquet, who discussed this in an interview with Michael Barbaro. However, Rukmini Callimachi, who worked with Mills on “Caliphate” was reprimanded while Mills was not. Critics of the decision have said Mills escaped accountability.
Public radio stations that broadcast “The Daily”, another Times podcast, expressed their concerns over Mills’s lack of accountability in a letter saying, “We feel your decision was not just tone-deaf, but blind to the current landscape in which we now exist.”
Once news of the decision and controversy around Mills’s lack of punishment was public, many of his old co-workers from “Radiolab” took to Twitter to express complaints about his behavior towards women at his old job.
Mills admitted to his past mistakes in his resignation post, saying:
“Like all human beings, I have made mistakes that I wish I could take back. 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 also specified that he had told his bosses and colleagues of his past before they hired him, which they responded with appreciation for his openness. Despite being years ago, social turned into a feeding frenzy when hearing Mills’s misconduct at “Radiolab”, resulting in “gross exaggerations and baseless claims,” Mills wrote in his resignation post on Feb. 5, “I have been transformed into a symbol of larger societal evils.”
The post ends with Mills stating, “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.”
Both the Mills and McNeil cases prompt the question, where do we draw the line between canceling someone for their actions and giving them another chance? The McNeil case is more difficult to decide where he falls because there isn’t enough context surrounding his other accusations, but based on just the “n-word” debacle, is that really enough? Does the intent and context of the conversation and the other interactions he had during the trip not matter?
As for the Mills situation, why are we as a society condemning a man for past mistakes he committed years ago that he willingly owned up to and has since changed from?
We should be more hesitant in ruining peoples’ careers based on just one side of the story, and we should also recognize that people are not perfect and make mistakes. So long as they move on from them and change for the better, why should they be condemned for their old sins forever?