Business

Anger inside the New York Times as divided newsroom erupts in debate over recent controversies

Posted February 10, 2021 10:03 p.m. EST
Updated February 10, 2021 10:33 p.m. EST

— The New York Times is familiar with breaking some of the biggest stories related to culture, race, and gender. But events over the past several weeks reveal that the nation's paper of record is largely divided when it discovers such issues sitting in its own backyard.

The announcement Friday of the departure of two high-profile journalists from The Times has spurred what some staffers have described as unprecedented levels of divisiveness and controversy inside the newsroom, with staffers warring with each other in private, on Facebook, and even in public on Twitter.

At the core of the divide: What is the best course of action to take when The Times' own reporters stand accused of violating some of the fundamental principles the newspaper champions? Exacerbating that divide is another question: Why can't the Times' leadership seem to decide on the best course of action in any given case and then stick with a decision once made?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer, but the lack of transparency from the top brass at The Times as to how such decisions are being made has frustrated staffers and demoralized a significant swath of the newsroom, multiple staffers at The Times told CNN Business in conversations this week. It has also raised questions about The Times' leadership and how equipped it is to navigate such challenges.

"It's a real f**king disaster," one Times employee remarked to CNN Business.

The journalists who resigned, Donald G. McNeil Jr. and Andy Mills, did so under different circumstances. McNeil, a longtime health and science reporter whose star rose as he covered the coronavirus pandemic, parted ways with The Times two weeks after a story in The Daily Beast revealed he had used a racial slur while serving as an expert guide for students during a 2019 junket to Peru. Mills, an audio journalist who was instrumental in the creation of "The Daily," exited after the "Caliphate" podcast he produced was found to have serious flaws, and the revelation of them prompted renewed focus on previous allegations of misconduct which he had acknowledged and apologized for.

The cases were distinct, but they had one thing in common: The Times had been aware of the prior behavior of both journalists and still chose to keep them employed in high-profile roles. In McNeil's case, The Times said it had investigated his behavior in 2019 on the trip and disciplined him. And in Mills' case, he said The Times had been aware of the previous misconduct allegations when he started working at the company in 2016.

It was only after McNeil and Mills faced new scrutiny for their previous actions that The Times no longer appeared comfortable standing beside them and the two men resigned. The apparent about-face has served as fuel in what is now a full-throated debate that has engulfed The Times.

The Times, however, told CNN Business its decision to part ways with McNeil and Mills came after new information surfaced after their cases received public attention.

"For cases like these, it's the job of our leadership to investigate fully to find out exactly what happened and what should be done about it," said Eileen Murphy, a spokesperson for The Times. "Often new information or concerns emerge after these cases become public. We work through these issues as we do our journalism, trying to do our best, focusing on the facts, and with our company policies and values — independence, integrity, and respect — central to the decision-making process. That's what we did in both of these instances."

But the lack of transparency into the matter has not quelled tensions internally and the void of concrete details has contributed to an environment in which many staffers are arriving at conclusions based on piecemeal bits of information.

One group of journalists inside The Times believes that the departures are emblematic of a so-called "cancel culture" at the newspaper, with management catering to what they describe as a vocal minority of "woke" staffers who raised concerns about McNeil and Mills. These staffers point to a letter that 150 of their colleagues reportedly signed asking top management to reassess McNeil's behavior.

But staffers who make up the opposing wing of The Times firmly reject that label and contend that their letter simply called for accountability and asked for transparency on how key decisions are made. The staffers also pushed back against the "cancel culture" narrative that has taken hold and suggested media coverage has been too focused on McNeil's 2019 actions and not his lack of contrition afterward.

Importantly, Murphy also told CNN Business that the decision about McNeil's leaving The Times had been made before the letter was delivered to management.

This article is based on conversations with eight Times employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss internal workplace dynamics. McNeil did not return requests for comment. Murphy declined to make Executive Editor Dean Baquet and Publisher A.G. Sulzberger available for interviews. Mills told CNN Business over iMessage that he is "just very sad" over the experience. Mills added, "I can say that I hope for better days for both Donald and my beloved NYTimes."

'No higher priority than getting this right'

The Daily Beast first reported on January 28 that McNeil had been accused of using the n-word and making other racist and generally insensitive comments during a 2019 trip to Peru with high school students in which he served as an expert guide.

A spokesperson for The Times told The Daily Beast that after it became aware of complaints from students, the newspaper "conducted a thorough investigation" into the matter. The Times spokesperson said the newspaper had found McNeil had "used bad judgment by repeating a racist slur in the context of a conversation about racist language" and "disciplined" him as a result.

Hours after The Daily Beast published its report, Baquet emailed staff to address the "offensive remarks" McNeil had made during the trip and affirm that he was satisfied with how the situation was handled.

"When I first heard the story, I was outraged and expected I would fire him," Baquet wrote in that email. "I authorized an investigation and concluded his remarks were offensive and that he showed extremely poor judgment, but that it did not appear to me that his intentions were hateful or malicious. I believe that in such cases people should be told they were wrong and given another chance. He was formally disciplined. He was not given a pass."

But Baquet's email failed to put the issue to rest. Staffers at The Times signed a letter addressed to Sulzberger which said, "Our community is outraged and in pain. Despite The Times's seeming commitment to diversity and inclusion, we have given a prominent platform — a critical beat covering a pandemic disproportionately affecting people of color — to someone who chose to use language that is offensive and unacceptable by any newsrooms standards."

The note to Sulzberger, which was sent on February 3, said The Times "should now take the opportunity to review its policies and better assess the harm behavior like Mr. McNeil's causes, both to colleagues and especially to the report." It asked for Sulzberger to call on McNeil to issue an apology; for there to be a "renewed investigation into the 2019 complaints and into any newly surfaced complaints"; and for "transparent policies" that "address when Times employees use hate speech in their work for the company."

The Times management responded to the staffers by writing a note, signed by Sulzberger, Baquet, and chief executive Meredith Kopit Levien. The note said management had "no higher priority than getting this right." It ended promising, "You will see results."

Two days later, on the afternoon of Friday February 5th, The Times announced that McNeil would leave the company.

The sequence of events led many inside and outside The Times to believe that management had been pressured to take the action it did by what several staffers characterized as a "vocal minority."

"I hate to say this, but inside The Times there is a 'cancel culture,'" one staffer at The Times commented to CNN Business. The staffer, echoing what several other Times journalists told CNN Business in separate conversations, described a dynamic where "there is not much infighting, but there is a small group of people who are very vocal" and who, this staffer said, do not appear to be satisfied until "heads roll."

Murphy told CNN Business, however, that while the decision regarding McNeil's resignation was only announced on Friday, it was actually made by management before the group of Times staffers sent Sulzberger their letter -- and after new information came to management's attention.

It's unclear why The Times wasn't more transparent with its staff about the process that led to McNeil's resignation before the resulting confusion could further divide some in the newsroom.

Some of those who signed the letter also pushed back against the characterization from colleagues that they were trying to "cancel" McNeil. One staffer who signed the letter pointed out that it "didn't say anywhere" that McNeil should lose his job.

"We were calling on something that went beyond this specific case," the Times staffer said. "But instead of addressing the larger issues, basically what happened was that The Times threw Donald under the bus."

Another Times staffer, who also signed onto the letter, stressed that it was mostly "about systems of accountability" and how they can be implemented to deal with situations like this in the future.

That Times staffer also pointed out that McNeil did not show any contrition for his behavior after it was made public and was being debated inside The Times. Instead, in a comment to The Washington Post, McNeil had urged people not to "believe everything you read."

The Times staffer said management's excuse for not taking stricter action "broke down because there was no apology" and even suggested he might not have signed the letter had McNeil simply offered a genuine apology. McNeil did offer an apology for using the slur in his resignation letter, but of course by then it was too late.

On social media, infighting between Times staffers has taken place in both public and private.

On Twitter, after Times reporter Michael Powell quoted press advocacy group PEN America's statement of support for McNeil, which suggested McNeil's career had been ended over the use of a single racial slur, his colleague John Eligon took issue with the the comment. (Powell, who covers free speech, responded to Eligon's tweet and said, "John, I course respect you and many other colleagues. I am tweeting Pen's statement.")

"The paper didn't alter course cuz of 'public pressure,'" Eligon, who did not respond to a request for comment, wrote in a quote tweet of Powell. "Legit concerns were raised by Black employees who worked alongside Don. It's disheartening that a colleague I've worked with & respected would tweet this & speaks to how isolating it is to be Black at a mainstream news org."

And on Facebook, a lengthy debate has taken place for days. Former Times reporter Steven Greenhouse wrote a post in a private Facebook group made up of current and former Times employees skewering the newspaper for its handling of McNeil's case. In the post, first reported by The Washington Free Beacon and confirmed by CNN Business, Greenhouse assailed some staffers at The Times for being "far more willing to sympathize" with "privileged 15- and 16-year-olds than with a longtime colleague who has done much great work for the Times over the years." His post prompted heavy debate, amassing more than 170 comments.

'Like all human beings, I have made mistakes'

Mills' downfall at The Times began in September 2020 when "Caliphate," an award-winning podcast that he produced with star reporter Rukmini Callimachi, started to collapse. A central subject of the podcast, Shehroze Chaudhry, who had claimed to The Times he had joined the Islamic State and committed acts of terrorism, was charged by Canadian authorities with perpetrating a terrorist "hoax."

The charges prompted The Times to say in a statement that it would take "fresh examination of his history and the way we presented him in our series." That examination ultimately led to The Times' announcing in December that "Caliphate" did not meet its "standards for accuracy." The Times, as a result, returned the 2018 Peabody award it had won for the series.

The episode was a significant black mark for The Times' audio department and resulted in the newspaper promising to implement more stringent standards governing podcasts. Callimachi, whose work at The Times had previously been questioned both internally and externally, was reassigned to a new beat.

But Mills, for a brief period, seemed to avoid accountability. Shortly after the "Caliphate" disaster, Mills co-hosted a special episode of "The Daily" that profiled radio host Delilah. This led to some critics suggesting that because he was a White man, he was given preferential treatment. It also led to previous colleagues of his resurfacing allegations of misconduct from years before when he worked at WNYC, a New York radio station.

A group of two dozen public radio stations wrote The Times about their concerns over the newspaper's handling of the "Caliphate" debacle and how Mills had been given "greater visibility." The letter linked to a story in The Washington Post that detailed allegations of Mills' inappropriate behavior. Sam Dolnick, an assistant managing editor at The Times, responded by saying the newspaper took allegations of misconduct "very seriously."

Then on Friday, the same afternoon that McNeil's departure was made public, Baquet and managing editor Joe Kahn announced that Mills had parted ways with The Times. In a lengthy statement posted to his website, Mills said he was saddened by the outcome and described the experience as "extraordinarily painful."

"Like all human beings, I have made mistakes that I wish I could take back," Mills wrote, saying that he had during his time at WNYC once given a colleague "a back rub" during a meeting and "poured a drink on a coworker's head at a drunken bar party."

Mills said that WNYC managers confronted him at the time about how his "unprofessional behavior was making people feel" and that he was "ashamed" and "took this reckoning seriously." Mills said that he had worked for nearly two additional years at WNYC "without further incident" before he was hired by The Times in 2016. Mills said when he was hired, he was "open" with the newspaper about his time at WNYC.

While Mills' departure did not generate the amount of discussion inside The Times McNeil's has, according to people familiar with internal discussions, some staffers questioned whether it was fair he had been forced out as a result of the "Caliphate" failure while Callimachi was only transferred to a new beat.

"Why does she keep a job and Andy doesn't?" one Times staffer wondered in a conversation with CNN Business. "Andy was not the driving force behind 'Caliphate.' She was."

Not everyone, however, agreed with that assessment.

"Just because there is a lack of accountability regarding his actions previously doesn't mean you get to free yourself from accountability forever," commented another Times staffer.

Mills told CNN Business over iMessage that the entire episode was "an awful experience" and that he was hoping to not be "the subject of anymore stories for a long time."

"I hope you can understand," Mills added.

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