Words That Hurt



McNeil — http://www.idnes.cz image

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Two New York Times journalists got in hot water over ethics infractions; one was forced to quit his job and the other was not.

One of them erred in a way that was considered unforgiveable, the other did not. Let’s look at the differences.

In the first case, Donald G. McNeil Jr., the newspaper’s specialist on plagues and pestilences, including Covid-19, was accused of using a racial slur, the N-word, while serving as an expert guide on a Times-sponsored trip for high school students to Peru in 2019.

Racial slurs

At least six students or their parents, out of 26 on the trip, complained about McNeil’s comments. The Times confirmed, in a statement, that McNeil had used a racial slur during a conversation about racist language.

In an email to staff, Dean Baquet, the executive editor, said that when he first heard about the complaints against McNeil, “I was outraged and expected I would fire him.” After an investigation, though, Baquet “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.” Baquet concluded:

“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.”

An apology

But that second chance did not last long. McNeil wrote a long article for medium.com giving his side of the story. He said he had written a letter of apology when he got a conference call from Baquet and a deputy managing editor.

“You’ve lost the newsroom,” Baquet said, according to McNeil. “A lot of your colleagues are hurt. A lot of them won’t work with you. Thank you for writing the apology. But we’d like you to consider adding to it that you’re leaving.” It was an invitation to resign, igniting a controversy.

“What?” shouted McNeil. “Are you kidding? You want me to leave after 40-plus years? Over this? You know this is bullshit. You know you looked into it and I didn’t do the things they said I did. I wasn’t some crazy racist, I was just answering the kids’ questions.”

Newsroom lost

Baquet repeated: “Donald, you’ve lost the newsroom. People won’t work with you.”

The exchange continued, but that’s the gist of it, and what appears to be a verified case of journalists turning their backs on a fellow journalist over an ethical lapse with racial overtones, if Baquet is correct. It also comes at a time when newspapers are changing practices to focus on racial and social justice.

The second New York Times ethics scandal involves David Brooks, a Times columnist since September, 2003, and frequent commentator on newscasts.


Brooks resigned from a paid position at the Aspen Institute, an international nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., after BuzzFeed News revealed conflicts of interest. Brooks became involved with Aspen in 2018, when he launched a project called Weave, a “Social Fabric Project” aimed at establishing connections between communities to build relationships and offer care.

A spokesperson for the Times said Times editors approved of Brooks’s involvement with Aspen, but current editors were not aware that he was receiving a salary for Weave. They concluded that holding a paid position at Wave while writing in the Times about the project, donors or its issues was a conflict of interest.

Although Brooks resigned his position at the institute, he will remain a volunteer for the project.

Encourages support

BuzzFeed News also learned that Weave funders include Facebook, the father of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and other wealthy individuals and corporations. BuzzFeed said that Brooks, on a Meet the Press appearance, encouraged support for Nextdoor, a social network for neighborhoods, without mentioning that Nextdoor had donated $25,000 to Weave.

Brooks also appeared in a Walton Family Foundation video and did not disclose that the organization, run by the billionaire family that founded Walmart, also funds his project, according to BuzzFeed News.

“Brooks’s failure to disclose these conflicts of interest added to the string of ethically questionable actions by the columnist and author related to his work on Weave,” reported BuzzFeed News.

Building character

It’s fair to wonder at this point, “What was Brooks thinking?” He is the author of books on morality and building character. One of his books, The Second Mountain, is subtitled, “The Quest for a Moral Life.” Anyone who writes about “moral ecologies” might be expected to notice red flags springing up at questionable decisions, like drawing a second salary that is unknown to your bosses.

Ethical choices are a matter of the times in which they occur, and being sensitive to what is socially acceptable or not. This is not a time for using the N-word or for performing in black face because it can be hurtful throughout the society in which we live, and not an isolated case that affects a few people.

From that perspective, the McNeil case is more significant. The New York Times decided McNeil should leave the Times because of what he said. Journalists should study it and learn from it. More than the Brooks case, it shows how words matter, choosing the right words matters, especially when our society is wakening to words that hurt.


The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional Journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

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