The Hill He Chose to Die On: Ex-NY Times Reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. uses about 21,000 words to explain how one word cost him his job

My friend Allison and I spent much of the past 25 years talking each other out of doing pathologically dumb things. When it seemed one of us was on the precipice of jumping off Mount Stupid into Idiocy Lake, the other would ask a simple question:

“Is this the hill you’re willing to die on?”

It’s the question that kept us out of a lot of trouble because it asked us to open the aperture of our lens, pull way out on the shot and look at the totality of what we were doing. It essentially asked, “If everything goes wrong, nothing works out right and you get every bad outcome, are you OK with this choice you are about to make?”

In most cases, the answer was “no,” so we went back to the drawing board to come up with a better solution. On rare occasion, the answer was “yes,” so we gave it everything we got and hoped for the best, or at least prayed to avoid the worst.

I thought about that today because Donald G. McNeil Jr. of the New York Times decided to make a stand amid increasing scrutiny regarding complaints about his use of language in front of high school students. He found out the hard way that, sometimes, when you say you’re willing to die on that hill, that’s exactly what happens.

The Daily Beast decided to run a piece on McNeil last month that focused on a trip he took to Peru with a group of high-school students in 2019. The students and their parents complained at the time about his activities there, according to the article, including his use of “wildly offensive and racists comments.” In that article, the authors cite at least two student complaints that he used the “N-word,” a charge McNeil didn’t deny.

The paper investigated the incident when it occurred and basically did very little in terms of punitive measures. McNeil received a letter of reprimand that stated he would not represent The Times on any more of trips of that kind and that if he screwed up again, he’d get punished and perhaps terminated.

When The Daily Beast came calling for a comment in February, the paper went into crisis mode and begged McNeil to basically apologize for everything anyone involved in that situation accused him of doing. McNeil declined to do so for a variety of reasons, which eventually led him to become an “ex-New York Times” writer as of March 1.

A situation involving a white person using a racist term and subsequently receiving life-altering punishment isn’t new or novel. What does make this situation different, however, is that McNeil decided to outline the entirety of the event and the subsequent fall out from it in a four-part essay on Medium.

McNeil took to Medium to outline his case for what happened on that fateful trip to Peru and why he decided to resign.

The series runs about 21,000 words and McNeil notes that it was vetted by two lawyers prior to publication. A kind of “Cliff’s Notes” version of this can be found in articles written for the New York Times and The Daily Beast.

McNeil relies on emails, notes and other artifacts from the 2019 situation, noting spots where his memory was used to fill in gaps or clarify situations. He also states that he built this based on fact, not opinion, although that’s clearly not always the case. When you are the lens through which you ask readers to view something, it’s tough to say the picture you create is perfectly representative of reality.

That said, I would recommend anyone to give this a read, along with the coverage of McNeil’s response. It’s a different experience to see something of this length discussing a topic of this type, especially in today’s 24/7, 280-character, InstaPot news cycle.

I read it at least twice from top to bottom and thought it probably could lose about 20% without missing much. McNeil gets repetitive in his statements, particularly in his efforts to explain how and why a sexagenarian found himself using the most disgusting racial pejorative in front of a group of high school students. It also gets a little too far into some “inside baseball” in regard to the NYT, its guild, personal conflicts and more.

Here are a few other takeaways:

IS WE LEARNING YET?: It can’t be said loudly enough, often enough, in enough venues and in enough situations, but we’ll try this once again for the white guys who might not have heard this the first 843,534,233,901 times someone has said this…


I can’t state this with absolute certainty, but if I had to place a bet on this, I’d wager that if McNeil had done all the other things he copped to but NOT said that word, he’d probably still be working at the Times.

According to the essay, which is the only source for this particular aspect of the situation, a student on the trip used that word in a question to McNeil regarding some social media video that had landed some other kid in trouble. McNeil then repeated the term in asking for context about its usage for reasons that remain a mystery to me.

The degree to which this situation is right, fair or anything else, is completely up for debate among people much smarter and better than me. That said, once that word entered the picture, it was like so many other “third-rail topics” we’ve discussed here over the years.

McNeil noted in his writing that he didn’t see himself as a racist and that he’d been to more than 60 countries in his decades-long career at the Times. I’m sure both of those things are true, in that he doesn’t see himself that way and that he isn’t an uneducated, xenophobic rube who views anyone not born within six miles of their family homestead with suspicion.

What’s also true is that he damned well should have known better than to use that word.

THE NYT IS FULL OF COWARDLY WEASELS: I’ve read several “exposes” on the Times before, including “Hard News” by Seth Mnookin, which looks at the Jayson Blair scandal and the paper’s horrible history on the issue of race. The paper often takes a beating for some pretty good reasons in regard to not being as representative, forward-thinking or enlightened when it comes to this issue and several others of similar importance.

That said, it’s still the New York FRICKIN’ Times. It’s the big boy on the block, the 800-pound gorilla in the room and the standard bearer for the concept of free press and its value to our society. It wins Pulitzer Prizes by the boatload for the sheer dint of being the Times and for having the tenacity of a dog with a Frisbee when it comes to important journalistic endeavors. Its name is on some of the most important Supreme Court cases of our time and it is the go-to for people who still believe in the concept of the Fourth Estate.

Yet, when a tripe-filled Dumpster fire like The Daily Beast decides to report a story two years after the event itself, utilizing the reportorial skill set of the former editor of the National Enquirer to do so, this bastion of First Amendment prowess decides to run around looking for a bed to hide under?

Gimme a break.

Gimme another one if the story that McNeil told about the run up to his ouster from the paper is in any way close to accurate. In outlining his meeting with the administrative big-wigs, McNeil states that the paper wasn’t going to fire him, but they encouraged him to “think about” resigning over this.

McNeil’s answer was right on the money: If I resign, I’m basically copping to all of this and agreeing that I am the a–hole this story says I am. (McNeil liberally refers to himself as an a–hole throughout his pieces, so I don’t think he’d mind me stealing from his act here.)

As quoted in the McNeil essays, executive editor Dean Baquet told McNeil he had “lost the newsroom” and that people wouldn’t work with him because of this situation. What followed was essentially the NYT brass saying, “Will you pleeeeeease think about MAYBE just resigning? Please?”

Look, if you really think this guy should no longer work for your paper because he did something so horrible that nobody will work with him, grab yourself some guts and fire this guy. Just step out and say, “I don’t care what the situation, circumstance or context is. If you say that word or commit offenses like these, you will not work here. That’s the long and short of it.” Don’t ask the guy to throw himself in front of a bus because you’re too scared to make a move.

If you DON’T think this is a fireable offense, and you think the newsroom is really about to break out the pitchforks and torches, have the guts to stand up and say, “I don’t like what he said or did, but I’m not going to let two twerps from a glorified blog push around an institution as venerable and storied as ours. Neither should you. If you really have a problem with this guy or this situation, stand up, tell him and hash it out. If you can’t do that, go LiveJournal it out of your head or send some ‘unnamed source’ comments to one of your friends at another publication, but that’s going to be the end of it. I’m standing up for the paper and I’d stand up for any one of you who suddenly saw your entire career flash before your eyes, so let’s get back to work.”

If your paper can take on the Nixon White House and publish the Pentagon Papers, it can weather this storm.

AWARE, NOT TERRIFIED, SHOULD BE THE PREFERRED STATE OF BEING: Stop for a moment and realize that every second you are alive could be your last one. Any one of a million or more things could kill you, both from the inside (cancer, heart disease, brain aneurysm) or the outside (car accident, fire). You are not guaranteed anything, nor will you likely know the moment at which you will cease to exist.

If you want to come to grips with that information, you can go one of two ways: Awareness or terror.

If you choose awareness, you can make smarter decisions about how you live life. You can quit smoking, eat better and work out with the hopes of driving down the risks associated with those potential internal killers. You can employ safety measures like buckling up each time you ride in a car, avoiding texting and driving and apply maintenance to your car that will make it safer to drive. Again, there are no guarantees, but it puts you in a better position to extend your life than NOT doing these things.

If you choose terror, you’re going to see potential death around every corner. You’ll obsess about every twitch in your body as the early warning sign of something that WebMD will confirm as cancer. You’ll lock yourself in a house like Miss Havisham and coat yourself in bubble wrap to avoid potentially fatal incidents. In short, you’ll basically stop living your life in hopes of prolonging it.

I thought a lot about this in reading the pieces McNeil wrote because I honestly worry that people are going to see what happened here and drop into terror mode when it comes to the complex issues that really need to be addressed in our society. If we are constantly afraid that anything we do could come back and bite us in the keester, we’re never going to go outside of our comfort zones. We’re going to cower in a corner and worry that every offense is a death penalty offense, so let’s just not go there.

Being aware of the needs of others, the pain people can cause each other and the perspectives of others means that we’re going to behave in a way that tries to create improvements in society. Being terrified that we’re going to get whacked in an instant, no matter how many positive marks we have on our side of the ledger, is going to lead to a lot more people who know a lot less about a lot of other people.

THERE IS SOMETHING TO BE SAID FOR CHOOSING YOUR HILL: I don’t know how any of you feel about this situation or anything I’ve written about it. Truth be told, I don’t even know how to feel about a lot of it.

What I do know is that McNeil has a lot more courage than I do.

He could have done what was asked of him. He could have said how he was sorry and that he’s going to attend some training or something and that he never should have thought about that word or those things or anything and just promised that he’d do the right thing, whatever that was, the next time he faced this situation, the Good Lord willing.

Instead, he said, “This is my hill. Win or lose, I’m willing to die here.”

Say what you want to about the choice, but there is something to be said for having the courage to decide that this is where you want to make your stand.

So many of us are willing to acquiesce to whatever others want because we are fearful of what will happen if we rock the boat. We sell out at the first sign of danger. To quote George Carlin’s line about getting mugged, we essentially say, “Do what you want to the girl, but leave me alone!”

McNeil went the other way and it cost him everything he’d spent decades building in a career he’d had since the term “copy boy” was an actual thing.

There’s something to be said for that, regardless of if you think he made the right choice.

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