Two New York Times journalists have left the paper over separate controversies involving racist and sexist behavior, including its high-profile Covid-19 reporter Donald McNeil, following disclosures about his use of a racist slur while on a company-sponsored student trip.
The departures of McNeil and audio journalist, Andy Mills, a co-creator of the Daily podcast and a producer and co-host of the now partially retracted Caliphate podcast, come amid a wider reckoning across over racism and abusive behavior within American newsrooms.
Mills’ departure, unlike McNeil’s, also follows a major journalistic failure: the revelation that a central source in the Times’ award-winning Caliphate podcast about the Islamic State, who had offered lurid audio testimony about his supposed role in Isis executions, may have been a fabulist who had duped the Times with claims that could not be independently corroborated.
The fallout from the collapse of Caliphate had sparked renewed public allegations about Mills’ past inappropriate and hostile behavior towards female colleagues, including a public apology from Radiolab, one of Mills’ former employers, for not doing enough to address his treatment of other journalists.
In letters on Friday afternoon, McNeil took responsibility for his behavior and apologized for hurting his colleagues and the paper’s reputation, while Mills defended himself, writing that he had “been transformed into a symbol of larger societal evils” and that his “actual shortcomings and past mistakes were replaced with gross exaggerations and baseless claims”.
In both cases, the Times had faced pressure from its own journalists, as well as from external critics, including a coalition of major public radio stations, to hold the men accountable for their behavior.
Following allegations of McNeil’s conduct when he had used the N-word in front of high school students on a 2019 trip to Peru, the paper initially investigated and said he had been disciplined, “but that it did not appear … his intentions were hateful or malicious”, the paper reported.
That response was strongly criticized in a letter by more than 150 New York Times staffers who said that despite its “seeming commitment to diversity and inclusion … we have given a prominent platform – a critical beat covering a pandemic disproportionately affecting people of color – to someone who chose to use language that is offensive and unacceptable by any newsroom’s standards”.
Six students or parents on the trip had complained about the comments, the Daily Beast reported.
In his apology letter, McNeil said he had repeated the racist slur in response to a question a student had asked him about a video in which a 12-year-old had been suspended from school for using the word. He had originally defended his use of the word in that context. “The fact that I even thought I could defend it itself shows extraordinarily bad judgment,” he wrote. “For that I apologize.”
In memos to staff on Friday, Dean Baquet, the paper’s executive editor, and Joe Kahn, its managing editor, announced the departure of both journalists. The paper’s media reporter tweeted the memo on McNeil’s departure and an apology from McNeil.