Interrogation

An Exhausting Week at the New York Times

Nikole Hannah-Jones on Donald McNeil’s resignation, what the reporting got wrong, and how she was involved.

Nikole Hannah-Jones smiling
Reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones at the Peabody Awards Ceremony on May 20, 2016, in New York City. Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Peabody Awards

The New York Times’ ability to weather very public internal controversies has been tested yet again this week with the resignation of veteran science reporter Donald McNeil over his use of the N-word on a trip with high school students in Peru in 2019. McNeil, a star of the paper’s coronavirus coverage, explained in an email to Times staff:

On a 2019 New York Times trip to Peru for high school students, 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.

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After several students on the trip complained, management at the New York Times investigated and quietly reprimanded McNeil. That was the end of it—until the Daily Beast reported his comments, including accusations that went beyond just that one dinner in question, a few weeks ago. McNeil resigned a week later.

In an email to staff explaining why they had changed their minds about McNeil’s fate at the paper, Times editor in chief Dean Baquet and managing editor Joseph Kahn wrote, “We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent,” setting off an intense debate within the New York Times and beyond about “intent” and context. Baquet walked the statement back in a staff meeting, saying, “of course intent matters when we are talking about language in journalism.”

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While media reporters have scrambled to find out more about the internal decision-making around McNeil’s departure, one of the few Times staffers speaking on the record about the situation has been Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer-winning writer behind the paper’s 1619 Project. She has posted on Twitter about the reaction to what happened, talked to the Washington Post, was reported to have been in a meeting with editors about McNeil before his resignation, and has since been a target of right-wing criticism over McNeil’s exit, which has alleged she doxxed a reporter and threatened internally to investigate the matter herself.

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To better understand her role and to learn more about internal fallout at the Times, I spoke to Hannah-Jones on Friday afternoon. Our interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Aymann Ismail: I’ve read a few pieces that have tried to describe how Don McNeil came to resign. Is there anything people at the Times know that we don’t?

Nikole Hannah-Jones: I don’t actually know anything more about his resignation than what has been published. Frankly, it hasn’t been my business, and it’s not what I’ve been focusing on. So, I can’t speak to whether he was forced to resign or not. I haven’t asked. I have felt personally conflicted about this whole thing, and I actually don’t know what the right outcome should be, because I’ve never felt like we have had enough facts to determine what is the right outcome. And I, too, do believe in second chances, and I just wish we knew more. I very intentionally haven’t spoken out about what the consequences should or shouldn’t be, internally or externally. I’ve not contacted a single manager, or person on the Times masthead, to suggest that I should have any say. Because one, I don’t have a say. I shouldn’t have a say. And I don’t know what was the proper way to handle this. I do think clearly just from what we do know that it wasn’t just about him saying the N-word in an academic conversation. The accusations were more than that, but I don’t know any more.

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I read the piece in the Washington Post that reported a series of complaints—disparaging Black teens, possibly, or that he denied the existence of white supremacy.

Is the denial of white supremacy a fireable offense? Clearly not. I do think it is not accurate, or fair, to divorce him saying the word out loud from the other conversations he is alleged to have had. The conversation has been framed as if it was simply academic conversation. But certainly, if I was in a conversation with someone who has made what I felt to be disparaging remarks about Black people, and then they chose to say that word in a context of a conversation where it wasn’t necessary to say the word, I’m going to take that as sort of a pattern. It’s going to have more meaning.

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But again, none of us know. Whether you support the decision or not—we don’t know enough. That’s how I’ve always felt about it.

Were you aware of the 2019 reprimand before the Daily Beast reported it?

No, absolutely not. This was handled as a confidential personnel issue. So no, none of us knew about it.

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How were you involved in the latest meetings with top editors on the language McNeil used? Why were you involved in that, and what was your position?

So, this is where there has not been good reporting on this. What occurred was, there’s a Black employee network, and they asked to have a meeting with Dean Baquet and others on the masthead. I phoned into that meeting. I didn’t call the meeting. I didn’t raise the meeting. I’m not in leadership for the Black employee network, but I am a Black person who was interested to hear what they were going to say about what occurred.

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I was on the call with a lot of other folks. A lot of other people spoke at that meeting. I was the only one where apparently someone felt the need to—I don’t even know if it should be called a “leak.” But the only point that I made was that I wish there had been more transparency, and that we were just being asked to trust that management had determined that he didn’t have intent. And I felt from the beginning that what the Daily Beast reported, it was way too vague. It said there were other accusations that he had made disparaging remarks. Well, what were those remarks? What exactly happened? So, I had tried to get the source material that the Daily Beast had based that reporting on. I made a couple calls to folks internally, at the time, who I thought might know, to try to figure out best I could, what were the actual accusations against him? And that’s where I’ve gotten the information that he had said disparaging things about Black teenagers, and has made what some consider misogynistic and culturally insensitive remarks in general. So, at that meeting, I said—my own reporting said—it wasn’t just him saying the N-word in casual conversation.

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You can’t just trust that there was a determination that was OK. We needed transparency. Particularly for journalists who write about racism, racial inequality, for the New York Times, our own colleague is being accused of this and we don’t have information, and you can’t speak out about it. And we’re just supposed to just trust you. That’s not what journalists do.

That’s really the only thing that I said at the meeting. My remarks were not even about Don McNeil or what should happen to him or whether I thought he was guilty or not. I never said I was going to track down the parents or the children. I never said that. I have a lot of stuff to do that’s much more important than that. I’m not a media reporter. That’s not my job. Some people have some image of me and how I function at the New York Times, but this is simply not based in reality. I don’t throw my weight around the institution, whatever weight that is. And I certainly didn’t threaten to investigate my colleagues or to take the precious time that I have to do journalism to try to track down what these kids said. I asked the institution to be transparent with us. And when you have someone like me who is an easy lightning rod for people who don’t like the New York Times—people who, I don’t even like to use “anti-woke”—I’m an easy target for that. So I got named in every story. I didn’t even sign the letter that 150 of my colleagues signed. I’m not on the letter. I didn’t even have time to read it, frankly. I’m being called the Black ringleader of the New York Times, and I’m probably one of the least involved people. I’m not surprised by it, though. The disappointing part about it is that a fellow colleague leaked inaccurate information about me to the press. That’s disappointing.

Did you try to correct the record?

I’m in this position where if I use my platform to do battle and push back against every false accusation, I actually only feed into it. It doesn’t serve the purpose of correcting the record. It just promotes more bad-faith, inaccurate pieces by conservative media. So I kind of just have to let it ride, I guess.

Do you think the Times could have done more in 2019, when McNeil was first reprimanded?

I really don’t know, because we don’t actually know what happened. So there’s clearly a different level of punishment that comes with someone who spent the days on this trip as a Times employee making a bunch of little disparaging remarks about Black people and then choosing to say the most offensive racist slur in American English. That would require severe punishment. But if the only thing was someone asked him a question, and he said the word, and that was it, then that requires something else. I don’t think there was any context in which he should have said that word. It is different to write it in a news article or you’re quoting someone for whatever reason, but it’s a rare necessity to ever use a word that terrible in conversation.

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All I was calling for was transparency. You can’t judge whether this was handled correctly or not or whether it was too severe or not severe enough, because we don’t know what happened. I don’t take lightly anyone losing their career over a single incident. And that’s why I didn’t call for it.

There’s a lot of attention on what’s happening at these New York Times meetings. Does the staff have more power now than they used to? Or is there just a sort of palace intrigue happening on Twitter, and people can’t help but sniff out the drama?

The National Review ran a story on me Thursday that said that I run the New York Times, and despite me embarrassing the Times they still employ me. We know that this is just a game the right plays. What they’re calling “mob rule,” some would call democracy. Some would call a newspaper that listens to its staff when its staff has concerns. When Bret Stephens writes a column against the New York Times and tries to use his platform to pressure the New York Times into acting a certain way, the right embraces that as him being brave. But when people who truly come from marginalized communities who have somehow scraped their way into the New York Times say, “A colleague using the most offensive word in the English language is very troublesome to us, and it’s troublesome how it was handled,” then that’s the mob, right? I think there is such a comfort with the fact that at institutions that—people of color did not for most of the history of the New York Times have any sort of power—are able now to have a voice and try to influence the institution. I don’t know how that’s a bad thing, except that some people who don’t share the perspective of what’s happening.

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Initially Dean Baquet and Joseph Kahn wrote to the staff, “We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.” You’ve since said to the Washington Post, “I think context matters and I think the very smart people who run the New York Times understand that.” People on Twitter dug up a tweet in which you used the N-word in a quote in all of this, and you’ve expressed exhaustion at that comparison. Can you walk me through your thinking on how context matters for when the N-word is used? 

So first of all, I don’t think that there’s any naivete around saying the word n——r. It is a hard word. I am Black, and it is a hard word for me to even let fall off of my tongue. It is much harder to say than it is to write. So I just don’t believe when people say they didn’t realize or they didn’t know. It is a word that is so taboo that we don’t write it out. People know, and particularly white people know, that this is a word that you don’t say, unless there’s absolutely 100-percent necessary, justifiable reasons to say it—for instance, you are reading a direct quote from someone in a very particular circumstance, academic setting, a speech, something like that.

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Unfortunately, the way that this has been treated is as an academic, intellectual exercise about colorblindness, about fairness, and it’s deeply dismissive of the Black experience and how that word has been used. This is something that people do when they have no understanding of the role that this word has played in every Black person’s life, generationally, including now. I can tell you exactly when a white person called me a n——r for the first time. I still feel the exact same kick in the stomach, when I think about when that happened. So, these kinds of intellectual games, as if we don’t understand that a word invented by white people can be the verbal incarnation of racism, of subjugation. They’re not being serious. This is just part of a larger strategy to pretend that we are not impacted by the racist history of our country. They understand these things. And it’s actually deeply painful. I am not the person who all day long talks about how words hurt me. But that casual dismissal of a very real and painful thing—because you think it can score you political points—I mean we just need to recognize it for what it is.

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To try to go through a Black journalist’s Twitter account, whether it be me or Astead Herndon or anyone, and say, “Oh, she was writing about racism, and she quoted someone saying the N-word. Should she be fired?” That’s a game. But it’s not a game to people who’ve actually borne the brunt of that word. It’s not a game when that has been used to dehumanize, to justify violence, to justify discrimination. I don’t understand how people who use words every single day for a living, then try to, all of a sudden when it comes to this, pretend they don’t understand the power of a word.

[…] What Dean Baquet was trying to do with that email—he wasn’t talking about the journalism, because Don McNeil was not practicing journalism. He was being a tour guide on a trip by the New York Times. He wasn’t writing an article where he quoted someone using that word. So, that’s what they were trying to question, and then, of course, there was the predictable backlash to that. And so, then they tried to correct and say, “Of course, in our journalism, the context matters.” But anyone who read that understood what Dean was saying—he wasn’t arguing, the Times was not arguing, that in our actual journalism we will prohibit that word under all cases and usages. But again, it’s a game to some people, so that’s how they respond to it.

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Do you feel like you were forced into being in this position, in having to explain to people how it feels when they use words that are so deeply hurtful to Black people? Do you feel like you have a certain special responsibility, or even a certain special power?

You will definitely not get me going on the record saying I feel I have a special power. I can already see the headlines after that. But it’s a very intuitive question because I absolutely for several days now have felt tortured by the way that journalists whom I respect were talking about this. And I kept waiting for someone else to really address the core of it and to talk about how inane it is to have such questions about whether a Black reporter can use the N-word versus a white reporter, as if we’re not talking about a racist word with a very particular history. So finally, yesterday after Dean made his statement, I knew it was going to drive a frenzy of people who were like, “Oh, the Times is flip-flopping.” The narrative was I forced him to do that because someone had uncovered me using the N-word in an academic tweet in 2016. So, I did feel like, “OK, this is my role.” And I think a lot about this—I feel my journalism exists to try to explain this country to itself. You want to have these very simple, superficial conversations about race, and you can’t, if you actually want to have a true understanding. So, I didn’t want to weigh in, I purposely didn’t weigh in. But I was, in a sense, dragged into it—one, by all of the different conservative media that kept ascribing things to me that didn’t happen. But also just, I don’t say I have a power, but I certainly have a position where I can speak out on things that many of my colleagues in the industry don’t feel that they can. Even though they feel these things, they don’t feel that they can. And I feel like if I am silent, I am letting them down.

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That feels like a lot of pressure.

It is. It feels weird to complain about it. I definitely am not, “Woe is me.” I’m very blessed and very aware of how blessed I am, but it is. And I spent the last four days having to consciously unclench my jaw. I would realize that I’m just sitting there with my jaw clenched and had to tell myself to release it. I don’t—again, for a lot of people, this is all just a kind of fun game. For a Black reporter, this is not. And people don’t realize the toll that some of this takes.

It isn’t just something to write on Twitter or kind of a sardonic piece that you put on a website. This is our lives. People in my family were brutalized because of that word. People in my family were kept from opportunities and living the lives that they should have lived. I was a sophomore on my college campus and was called that word because my friend and mine’s car stopped in the street and we were trying to push the car off the street, and a car full of white football players felt we were blocking their way. And they didn’t ask these two Black women, “Do you need help pushing the car off the road?” They told us, “Get out of the road, you fucking n——rs.”

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Oh my God.

This is real life for us. And it’s cool that other people think it’s just something to debate, the fairness of who can’t say a racist word. I wish more people would take some time to understand. We’re journalists, but we’re human beings.

How do we fix that? Policy? Sensitivity training? More Black writers? What do you think it’ll take to educate your white colleagues?

I feel like almost all of my white colleagues, this would never be an issue with. Most white people, no matter what, know. And most white people I know would never say that word in any context. So I don’t think that this is an issue that requires some rooting out or some policy change or some education. We don’t write that word out, nine times out of 10, because everyone knows this is a taboo word that you don’t say. So I think what happens is if people decide—and I’m a journalist, I clearly believe in free speech—you can say whatever you want to, but I do think people need to know, if you decide to say the word in a gratuitous way, there’s going to probably be a consequence. That’s just a decision you have to make. Is it worth it to you to use such an ugly and vile word? I would imagine Don McNeil regrets that he used that word, because it’s clearly not necessary. Use the word, but if you do, don’t cry about the consequences.

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Amid all of this, a Free Beacon reporter contacted you, and you tweeted an image with his phone number. Do you regret that?

Yes. Absolutely. It was not intentional. 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. I will say that tweeting the work cell phone of a journalist who gave it to you is not doxing. I did not dox him. But I should not have tweeted his number, and I would not have done it intentionally, so I regret that.

How do you perceive the New York Times, your workplace, now? Does it feel like it’s in turmoil?

It is an amazing thing to be a journalist and then watch the way other journalists, or people who call themselves journalists, write about your institution and the people you know. And then you realize, we’re probably getting shit wrong all the time, because a lot is just not true. I think that, one, it’s hard to say because we don’t go into a physical building, so you don’t have those kinds of casual conversations or feel the tension within a workplace that you would have if you were all in the building together. So I’m basically talking to the people that I talk to all the time. I think there are definitely people at the Times who feel the way this went down was completely unfair and an overcorrection. I think there are other people at the Times who feel that the Times didn’t go far enough and that they should have never even gotten to this point. I would say those tensions probably exist at the Times all the time anyway, and at just about any diverse institution. I don’t make my living writing about how hard existing in this multiracial democracy is because what is happening at the Times is unique. So the Times will weather this and hopefully come out better for it. And I personally am grateful that Black journalists feel that they can and will speak up, and that at least on this day, their concerns will be listened to.

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