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

What we're learning after the latest in a series of high-profile departures.

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.”

On February 5, reports emerged that McNeil had left the company. And Baquet sent staff a statement that indicated, if not a change of heart, then a change in policy.

“We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent,” he said. 

Whether Baquet was protecting his employees or caving to them was unclear. What was clear was that “intent,” which might be considered the backbone of the paper, had just been sacrificed in the zeal to give McNeil the heave-ho.

Sibarium thought the Times was making up policy as it went along, maybe to appease those staff who increasingly demanded that stories, and colleagues, be examined and evaluated through the lens of race. And so he decided to fact-check Baquet’s statement, to see whether Times writers had used the “n-word” in print or on social media. After finding numerous instances, Sibarium told his editor he thought the misalignment between what Baquet said and what staff did worth writing about; that there was maybe a double standard here. She encouraged him to find out.

One person Sibarium sought out was Nikole Hannah-Jones, the force behind the Times’ 1619 Project, which, in the words of the Times, “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative,” and for which Hannah-Jones had been awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2020. 

“It was a bit of a pointed request but I did my best to be respectful,” Sibarium told me, of his email to Hannah-Jones, who is black, asking if she could comment on Times’ policy “when you yourself have used the same slur McNeil did, albeit in a non-derogatory context.” He included a screenshot of a 2016 tweet in which Hannah-Jones used the “n-word” with both its “-er” and “-a” endings. He also sent emails asking for comment to Times reporter Astead Herndon and Baquet, both of whom are also black. Sibarium included his personal cellphone number.

“I kind of expected they wouldn’t reply to it,” he said. “Then Saturday night, I got this call.” 

Before we get to the call, and since we’re talking about context, let’s have some. Sibarium is 25. He is white. He graduated from Yale in 2018 and, because D.C. is expensive, is living with his parents in nearby Chevy Chase, Maryland. Before joining the Washington Free Beacon, he worked for two years at the conservative publication, The American Interest.

Sibarium does not consider himself a conservative. “I grew up a pretty moderate Democrat, pretty liberal household,” he said. “Not politically correct—I always thought political correctness was stupid. My opposition to it was always, in practice it shuts down free speech and makes it impossible to debate interesting things, and liberals believe in debate and openness, right?” 

Sibarium saw what he considered the shutdown of free speech when he was at Yale and working as the opinion editor of the Yale Daily News. “I was there when the Halloween costume cultural appropriation, the Nicholas Christakis stuff, was happening,” he says—a reference to the Yale professor whose wife Erika, a lecturer at Yale, spoke up for free expression and against the regulation of Halloween costumes on campus, a position seen by some students as insensitive if not racist, which resulted in protests as well as hundreds of students writing a letter demanding the Christakises be punished.

“I had to field all the op-eds about it, and also navigate the newsroom dynamics, where people wanted to write these insanely woke editorials, just weighing in completely supporting protesters. Which we ended up doing,” said Sibarium. “I tried to get us not to, but there was a dynamic where, most people would vote to weigh in on the woke side of things—not actually because they believed it, but because they knew if they didn’t, a group of people at the paper was going to call them racists and they didn’t know what would happen. What’s happening at the New York Times, from all the conversations I’ve had with people off the record, sounds exactly like what happened at Yale. … [Some] people have all kinds of moral authority and other people are terrified to push back.”

I’ve had similar conversations with former and current Times employees, none of whom wanted their names mentioned. They spoke of patterns emerging inside the building, a more activist contingent that steers which stories will be run and which will get sunshine. 

“In each department, there are investigators looking to root out stories they don’t deem on-message enough,” I was told. “It becomes impossible to publish nearly anything that isn’t essentialist without being accused of racism or misogyny or transphobia. You may be Latino; your relatives may not use ‘Latinx’ or have even heard of it, but you’re a racist if you don’t support its use inside the building and editorially.”

Knowing less-liberal stories will be shot down, and those who suggest them possibly maligned, people become reluctant to pitch ideas; it’s just too risky. Those stories that do get through are sometimes steered toward a catch basin that assures they don’t get much seen.

“It’s a constant problem for any center-right or creative projects that are not deemed as carrying the right message,” an editor said. “These stories don’t get put on the mobile site and then are instantly getting less traffic than those stories that land on the homepage and for mobile. The argument comes back, ‘Well, readers want radical stuff.’ And so something like ‘Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police’ stays on the homepage for days. The system is self-fulfilling.”

Which confirms something I saw going on at the Times last summer, when I was reporting (for Reason magazine) on the protests in Portland, Oregon. Nearly every piece in the Times about the protests denied that Antifa was causing the mayhem. But I knew they were. I saw them with my own eyes. Antifa members told me they were. Instead, Times coverage skated past Antifa’s culpability; sometimes, it blamed far-right groups for the violence. In the dozens of nights I was on the ground, this was not the case. Far-right groups made appearances, to be sure, but they were not the people setting fires and breaking windows, starting in May and continuing even now. And thus the question becomes: If I cannot trust the paper to accurately report what I know to be true, how do I trust it at all?

“It seems the New York Times is transitioning from sort of a non-partisan paper of record to just simply a left-wing publication that pursues a left-wing agenda, without apology,” Sibarium told me. “How should we respond to that?”

His response, or one response, was to send his email to Hannah-Jones. And if it was a bit of deliberate provocation, it was, in a sense, successful.

Sibarium was sitting on the couch at home playing Xbox when his cellphone rang. 

“I picked it up and this guy starts saying, ‘Leave Nikole Hannah-Jones the f—k alone!’ Then he used the n-word,” recalled Sibarium. “I was like, what’s going on, hello?’ Then I hung up and thought, wait, she didn’t. … And then I checked Twitter.” 

It had been several hours since Sibarium sent Hannah-Jones his request. She could have ignored it, or shot back “no comment,” or agreed to answer Sibarium’s question. Instead, Hannah-Jones, who has more than 500,000 Twitter followers, posted his email, which included his phone number, with the comment, “@ aaronsibarium is apparently trying to scour Black NYT employees Twitter accounts to find them using the N-word in response to Don McNeil’s resignation, which is asinine on its face but also, homie, I don’t use the N-word casually so this is all he came up with [referring to the screenshot]. Keep trying tho.”

Which can be seen as a bit of provocation of her own, slapping down a young journalist in public, showing him how easily she could take control of the narrative. That posting his private phone number violated Twitter’s terms of service, that it could be seen to conflict with any number of journalistic ethics, did not appear to concern Hannah-Jones. While some commenters, were critical of her posting Sibarium’s information, others cheered, including one woman who commented, “Lol and he included his phone number and thought you would actually call him.” Hannah-Jones apparently saw the humor in it, too, responding, “Girl”—a response that, because he was tagged in the tweet, also went to Sibarium. Who, for his part, was a little freaked out. What journalist in his first week on the job wouldn’t be? Wouldn’t he wonder if he’d violated some journalistic principle, maybe jeopardized his employer? He wondered how rocky the night, the week, his career might become, now that whatever portion of Twitter’s 330 million users had access to his phone number, some of whom were now calling, inviting him to go f—k himself and accusing him of persecuting Hannah-Jones, who would leave Sibarium’s phone number on her feed for 47 hours, an act the Times would later defend as “unintentional.”

Let’s talk about intention and the workout the Times gave the principle during the course of the McNeil and Hannah-Jones affairs. McNeil was ushered out of a job for using language deemed offensive “regardless of intent.” Hannah-Jones’ tweeting Sibarium’s phone number would be explained away as “unintentional.” 

The defense of Hannah-Jones’ tweeting Sibarium’s phone number—which may have been unintentional, though knowingly leaving it up for 47 hours was not—was the second mauling of intent that week, the first being Baquet’s declaration that intent did not matter. That he would walk this back a few days later (“Of course intent matters”) did not stop a lot of people from wondering how you run a newspaper if intent is considered useful in some cases but not others, when you use it as a shield on those you want around, and a cudgel on those you don’t.

A story that does not at least try to convey intent is either a guessing game (why did the man shoot his wife?); a heuristic (the shooting was accidental because everybody knows that men love their wives and would never hurt them) or a way to sweeten the odds, to assure and codify the outcomes your in-group wants to see: Men shoot their wives because they are misogynists, and thus we will craft this and future coverage of stories with an eye toward protecting women. If you think otherwise you are part of the problem, and there is no place in the newsroom for you. In fact, having you here is a danger. 

It’s a neat tautological trick, one rarely challenged without consequence. McNeil himself tried on January 28, telling a reporter from the Washington Post who’d inquired about the racial slurs, “Don’t believe everything you read.” Maybe McNeil was too beleaguered, or too old-school, not to think knowing the context of what happened in Peru would clear things up with his colleagues. He did so anyway, in a farewell note to them the day his resignation was announced:

“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.”

Which did not matter then and had not mattered since the campaign against him began. The Times had investigated the incident in 2019; it knew the details and had decided to keep McNeil, who had gone on to do stellar work, including, in the week before his forced departure, interviewing Dr. Anthony Fauci and appearing on the Times podcast, The Daily. United States law does not allow for double jeopardy, for a person to be retried after being found innocent. But things were different now at the Times. Some on the staff wanted to rev up the paper’s commitment against racism and racist language. They wanted McNeil reinvestigated.

“At that meeting, Pulitzer Prize-winner Nikole Hannah-Jones said she planned on calling the parents and students on the trip, to determine what McNeil had said and in what context, according to people familiar with the situation,” the Daily Beast had written, an attribution Hannah-Jones denied, to me, in a tweet.

“One org sites [sic] unnamed sources saying I said this. I did not,” she tweeted, after I’d wondered when Times reporters had started acting like hall monitors. “Anything else I can help you with?”

Sibarium’s email to Hannah-Jones—and, thus, his phone number—stayed on her Twitter feed all of Sunday and into Monday. Though his boss contacted the Times about the tweet, Sibarium did not, concerned that any follow-up he sent might also wind up on Twitter. Instead, he ignored the calls and texts to his cellphone and worked on his story about McNeil and the double standard, a story that now included his incident with Hannah-Jones, which seemed to reify the idea that there was not one set of rules at the Times, that how and when they were enforced were subject to change, that they might not be applied universally.

“It was a rough 48 hours, but the story came out Monday evening around 8:30,” said Sibarium. “Within an hour she deleted her tweet. And then the next day she scrubbed her whole social media.” 

Maybe there had been consequences for her inside the paper. Maybe she realized she’d made a mistake. She said as much in an interview on Slate that ran on February 13, saying in part, “I didn’t realize I was tweeting out his phone number, and when someone mentioned it, I should have deleted it. So absolutely. I did not intend to do that, and I wish that I hadn’t … so I regret it.” 

We all make mistakes. If we are fortunate, people show us grace and we move on. We can hope but cannot expect that others will operate this way. What we can expect, in fact what we should demand, is that the New York Times operate this way, that its leaders don’t talk out of both sides of their mouths. If media people are writing “What the hell is going on at the New York Times?” pieces, if the speed with which McNeil was forced out appears a bridge too far, the paper has only itself to blame. Hannah-Jones posting Sibarium’s information certainly extended the story, kept it in the public eye, her drama all but eclipsing McNeil’s. Maybe she liked it that way; maybe it reminded people that she, and not McNeil, is the one who won a Pulitzer. Did I mention the Times had been about to nominate him for his COVID coverage? Which would have been a nice capstone to a 45-year career. Instead, he got to write an apology to his colleagues the week of his 67th birthday and to be unceremoniously invited to disappear. 

Nine days after McNeil’s departure, Times media critic Ben Smith ran a piece headlined: “Postcard from Peru: Why the Morality Plays Inside The Times Won’t Stop.” In it, he laid out where the Times finds itself now:

I think it’s a sign that The Times’s unique position in American news may not be tenable. This intense attention, combined with a thriving digital subscription business that makes the company more beholden to the views of left-leaning subscribers, may yet push it into a narrower and more left-wing political lane as a kind of American version of The Guardian— the opposite of its stated, broader strategy.

The New York Times of institutional memory took an interest in and had a curiosity about its fellow citizens. I think the paper felt an obligation, and even a joyous obligation, to report as roundly as it could. 

That practice is becoming nonoperational. The Times is going to tell us what’s worth reporting. The push to see any story through the lens of racism (or sexism or transphobia) can be, and de facto is, seen in some quarters as a push toward progress. And it would be ludicrous to suggest there is not progress to be made in any area where there has been historic intolerance and oppression. But having these issues be ever-paramount does not show an interest in progress; it shows an insecurity in testing one’s ideas. It shows a taste for retribution. It shows people feeling so threatened by views other than their own that they are willing to turn bits of their most precious resource—words—into pellets of plutonium, to be used against anyone they deem problematic, regardless of actual threat level. 

I spoke with Sibarium a week after the incident. The nasty phone calls had stopped, though not for Hannah-Jones. Sibarium relayed that she was being harassed online for posting his information.

“Obviously I don’t encourage anyone going after her personally. I don’t want people calling her the c-word or the n-word on Twitter; none of that is acceptable. And I feel bad if she’s inundated with that,” he said. “But if you don’t want to be inundated with that stuff, then don’t ask for it either. There is a reason that she gets so much heat and it’s because she’s does a lot of really stupid stuff on social media. And no one makes her do it. I mean, she could just put her head down and do her job.”

Maybe this is part of her job, to be a figurehead and a fighter for the Times, to be ready to reframe history in a way that excites both her readers and her bosses, to take the heat and be the star without apology. By the way, had Sibarium received an apology, either from Hannah-Jones or the Times?

“Nope, no apology,” he said. “The closest thing I guess I got was her saying in the Slate interview, ‘I regret it.’” 

He did, however, receive what he called an “unsurprising coda,” which he sent me: a screenshot showing Hannah-Jones had blocked him on Twitter.

Nancy Rommelmann is an author and journalist based in New York. Follow on Twitter @nancyromm.