“In our zeal to make a powerful statement about our workplace culture, we ham-handedly said something you rightfully saw as an oversimplification of one of the most difficult issues of our lives,” Executive Editor Dean Baquet told staff at a meeting. “It was a deadline mistake and I regret it.”
“Of course intent matters when we are talking about language in journalism,” Baquet added. “The author and his purpose also matter, the moment matters.”
McNeil, a longtime health and science reporter whose star rose as he covered the coronavirus pandemic, parted ways with The Times two weeks after a story in The Daily Beast revealed he had used a racial slur and made other racist comments while serving as an expert guide for students during a 2019 junket to Peru.
In the note announcing McNeil was leaving the company, Baquet and Kahn told staff, “We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.”
That comment drew criticism from external critics as well as staffers inside The Times who said that intent and context matter and pointed to The Times’ own use of such language when necessary in reporting.
Baquet nodded to that fact in his comments to employees Thursday.
“The slur we’ve been discussing is a vile one. I’ve been called it. But it appears in our pages and it will no doubt appear in our pages again,” Baquet said.
“It should not be used for effect,” Baquet added. “It comes with a grim history and it’s a blow to the gut….each use should be put to the test. That’s why we have a style book. But the main thing is of course intent matters.”
Baquet’s comments came amid a time of extreme divisiveness at The Times largely over how it handled McNeil’s case.
Bret Stephens, a conservative opinion columnist at The Times, wrote a piece on Monday skewering Baquet and Kahn for saying intent was irrelevant when using racist language.
Kathleen Kingsbury, the opinion editor of The Times, told CNN Business that the newspaper regularly chooses not to run columns for various reasons.
“The bar is especially high for columns that could reflect badly on colleagues,” Kingsbury said. “And we decided that this column didn’t reach that bar.”
Kingsbury said she had a professional conversation Monday night with Stephens informing him of the decision after she consulted with Sulzberger.
Kingsbury also pointed out she had previously published and supported Stephens when he wrote columns criticizing The Times for other matters.
Stephens told CNN Business that he only sent his email Thursday to a “handful of friendly colleagues at The Times.”
“I never intended the column to be public,” Stephens said. “I regret that someone shared it outside of my immediate circle of friends.”
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