I was optimistic that Donald Trump’s exile to Mar-a-Lago would quell our toxic outrage culture. Trump got away with everything, from alleged rape to racism, and thus, nobody else could skate on even minor infractions. Powerless to stop the crazed septuagenarian in the White House, social justice vigilantes turned their sights on people in their own communities, and in the case of the media, their own newsrooms. The online pitchfork army ruled the day.
Frighteningly, three weeks into Joe Biden’s presidency, the Twitter mob isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. The recent disaster at the New York Times should cause every person with a front-facing job to quiver in fear.
There are many converging details surrounding star NYT reporter Donald McNeil’s abrupt resignation, but here’s the gist: On a Times-sponsored “Student Journey” to Peru in 2019 (yes, these things do exist, and cost nearly $5,500), the health and science reporter “repeatedly made racist and sexist remarks throughout the trip,” the Daily Beast says, citing two complaints. During one instance, McNeil allegedly used the n-word.
Those are serious accusations, and unsurprisingly, the Times commissioned an investigation. It found McNeil had repeated a “racist slur in the context of a conversation about racist language,” which is a bit different than the Daily Beast’s portrayal of McNeil inundating poor college students with racist and sexist tropes throughout Machu Picchu.
In an apology, McNeil said he repeated the slur back to a student at dinner, who asked him whether he thought one of their classmates should be suspended for using the word in an old video. “I am sorry,” McNeil wrote. “I let you all down.”
After the Daily Beast’s story, Times executive editor Dean Baquet told the newsroom he determined McNeil exhibited “poor judgment,” but didn’t appear to harbor “hateful” or “malicious” intentions. McNeil kept his job, and led the Times‘ coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. The paper submitted his work for a Pulitzer Prize.
But that explanation didn’t satisfy 150 Times staffers, who wrote a letter last week expressing their anger. The fervor prompted McNeil to resign Friday, and in a second statement, Baquet said the paper doesn’t “tolerate racist language regardless of intent.”
That’s quite a shift from two weeks ago, when Baquet said he ultimately cleared McNeil, because he made a judgment call on the longtime reporter’s … wait for it … intentions. So what changed?
The backlash became too much to bear.
I was not on the Times’ “Student Journey,” so obviously, I don’t know what McNeil said. I also don’t know anything about him. Maybe he’s an atavistic ghoul, and his dismissal was a long time coming.
But from what we know, the Times conducted an investigation two years ago, and decided to keep McNeil on staff. Then, the Daily Beast picked up on the scandal, and failed to distinguish the difference between “using” a racial slur and describing it. The revelation prompted 150 furious Times employees to pen a letter of outrage, and days later, McNeil was gone.
PEN America, the nonprofit organization that protects free expression, summarized the episode best: “For reporter Donald McNeil to end his long career, apparently as a result of a single word, risks sending a chilling message.”
It’s easy to dismiss McNeil’s resignation, and stories like it, as comeuppance for an older generation that’s benefitted from racism and patriarchy. “I would never even think to say the n-word,” you may say, “so nothing like this would ever happen to me.”
But I am here to tell you: It can. Our side’s indignation can be weaponized against us.
Look no further than the case of Lauren Wolfe, the freelance editor whom the Times recently fired for tweeting she had “chills” during Biden’s inauguration. She became the target of bad faith criticism and was harassed by right-wing trolls–with the New York Post even assigning a photographer to chase after her.
Still, the Times ended her employment.
Outrage mobs are powerless—until management starts knuckling under. But once an organization begins kowtowing, it’s hard to differentiate between valid complaint and noise.
Maybe you will never say the n-word. But have you ever said anything objectionable, or tweeted something provocative? Given that many of our digital trails cover the entirety of our teenage and college years, the answer is most likely yes.
One of the most respected journalists in his field resigned over a remark he made two years ago, despite his employer already settling the matter. If that’s the standard, just imagine how little leeway will be granted to the rest of us.
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