The New York Times Succumbs to the Mob
Donald McNeil and Andy Mills, Matt Welch on Bill Maher, Superbowl grub on the fly
Good morning, fellow travelers, from the Amtrak traveling south along the Hudson River, which is so socked in with fog and ice my daughter just asked, “What, are we in Greenland?”
Speaking of said daughter, I thought I’d start with a shot of her beautifulness before heading into the subject at hand, which is not beautiful.
For ten days, there has been, yet again, another story brewing at the New York Times about someone high up being in danger of losing his job, in this case, science reporter Donald McNeil Jr. I understand that some readers might see this as insider baseball but stick with me as I think it’s pretty important stuff, in terms of understanding how some of your news is being gathered and disseminated.
Matt Welch and I talked about the situation in our first Paloma Media podcast and touched on it again on the second. A clip as to how we saw it:
By Friday, McNeil was out, as was Andy Mills, co-creator of the Times’ podcast “The Daily” and producer of “Caliphate.” I’ve written here previously what I felt was the illegitimacy of the campaign against “Caliphate”:
Into their pot of credibility, [Daily Beast reporters] toss “Caliphate,” which they state “has now been debunked.” Well, no. Nothing in “Caliphate” has been debunked because nothing needed to be debunked. Go ahead and Google “caliphate” and “controversy” and you will read the outrage-artists amplifying the takedown. Then go listen to the series. Hear how it was always the case that the correspondents considered their main subject less than reliable, that he was perhaps a fabulist. Listen to the extraordinary work they do interviewing kidnapped and raped girls; how they give these girls voice and some measure of justice. Listen to the caginess of Canadian authorities refusing to answer Rukmini Callimachi’s questions about the possible fabulist, the same authorities who now have put that fabulist in an impossible legal bind, for which Callimachi’s and Andy Mills’ colleagues inside the New York Times have decided, they must pay. Listen to The Fifth Column episode (starting at 01.12.00) discuss the important and groundbreaking work of “Caliphate” and why media people might want to bring its creators down.
The Daily Beast was behind the reporting against McNeil, and it takes about two brain cells to figure out there were people inside the Times who wanted reporters to have the information about an internal investigation from 2019. It’s a slimy story Matt covered well yesterday in Reason, and which I was fortunate enough to be able to write as an Opinion piece for Newsweek, my first piece for the publication.
What did McNeil say during a 2019 Times-affiliated trip to Peru, on which he served as an expert, which resulted in his being let go from the paper he’d worked at for 45 years? A clip from my piece:
Here's what actually happened: A student asked McNeil if a classmate of hers should have been suspended for a video she 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," McNeil recalled in a letter to his former colleagues. "In asking the question, I used the slur itself."
In other words, in attempting to answer a question, he repeated part of the question. That's it. No wonder Baquet concluded he had no malintent. What adult can't see a difference between using a slur and referring to a slur in the context of a conversation about slurs? But as it turns out, in American journalism in 2021, a conversation about racist language is a priori racist, and in the fight against racism, intent was going to have to take it on the chin.
This seemed to be the position of the 150 Times employees whose letter to Sulzberger clearly stated that McNeil's intent was "irrelevant;" that what mattered was "how an act makes the victims feel."
That journalists at a media company whose motto is "All the News That's Fit to Print" no longer consider intent relevant should send a chill through you. This isn't journalism. It's time to call it what it is: a power grab.
Read the piece and let me know your thoughts. Anyone who comes to the table with honest intent is welcome!
In happier developments, Matt was on Real Time with Bill Maher on Friday!
There’s been not much time for media consumption this week, but I did watch “Apollo 11.” In addition to being beautiful and moving - when was the last event, other than a national disaster, where seemingly every American was held in awe? - but my god, the work that went into this. Humans are amazing.
Last, it’s Super Bowl Sunday, and I did not have any plans as to where to watch the big game, until last night at 10, when Bill Schulz mentioned, “I have a huge TV.” Also, that he’d get the booze if my friend and I brought the food. Homemade guacamole (how-to video here!) and crispy chicken wings it is! Go team… I don’t know? Who are you rooting for?
Last, I’ve been singing this song, from “Jesus Christ Superstar,” all week. I looked it up just now and saw that it was sung by Yvonne Elliman, singer of a catchier song that lodged in my head when it first came out and never left.
With love and hot pie xx
Media is slowly dying when you can’t talk about a topic because a victim (and in this case none were around) may possibly have feelings about a word that is not directed at them.
I’m not sure how this can be turned around but it seems like it’s snowballing into a norm that will (hopefully) destroy these publications.