Words as Weapons: How Activist Journalists are Changing the New York Times

It was February 6, and Aaron Sibarium was rounding out his first week as a staff writer for the Washington Free Beacon. He’d been planning to write about the new AstraZeneca vaccine and why its FDA approval was taking so long, but had instead found himself following the drama unfolding inside the New York Times. Two years earlier, science reporter Donald McNeil Jr. had been an expert guide on a Times-sponsored trip to Peru for high school students. While there, he was said to have used a racial slur in the context of a conversation about racist language. The incident had been investigated by the Times in 2019 and McNeil, who joined the paper in 1976, was disciplined. His career had risen precipitously since, becoming in 2020 the Times’ breakout COVID reporter.

That rise ended on January 28, when the Daily Beast disinterred the 2019 investigation and, without detailing what was said or in what context, ran a story with the headline, “Star NY Times Reporter Accused of Using ‘N-Word, Making Other Racist Comments.’” 

Initially, Times executive editor Dean Baquet stood by McNeil, telling the Daily Beast he’d concluded that McNeil’s remarks “were offensive and that he showed extremely poor judgment but it did not appear to me that his intentions were hateful or malicious.”

That conclusion had not appeased a restive portion of the Times staff, 150 of whom signed a letter to management on February 3 saying, “our community is outraged and in pain,” demanding a personal apology to them from McNeil, and framing his use of the “n-word” as “offensive and unacceptable by any newsroom’s standards.”

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