New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet on Thursday walked back a statement regarding the company’s policy on racial slurs, the latest development in an internal scandal that began after its veteran science reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. was recently pressured to resign for using the N-word.
In a staff meeting, Baquet said he had gone too far when he declared last week that the paper would not tolerate racist language in the workplace or by employees "regardless of intent,” several people present in the meeting said.
"Of course intent matters when we are talking about language in journalism," Baquet said, calling his earlier declaration ham-handed.
Baquet and Joseph Kahn, the Times' managing editor, made the initial statement about intent in a letter to the staff sent last Friday, in which they wrote, "We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent."
The meeting on Thursday coincided with the newspaper’s decision, first reported by NBC News, not to publish a column by the conservative opinion columnist Bret Stephens in which he took issue with Baquet's initial claim.
"Do any of us want to live in a world, or work in a field, where intent is categorically ruled out as a mitigating factor? I hope not," Stephens wrote in the unpublished op-ed column, a copy of which was sent to NBC News by a source at the paper.
Stephens had forwarded the column to at least one colleague and blamed the paper's publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, for not publishing it.
"If you're wondering why it wasn't in the paper, it's because AG Sulzberger spiked it," Stephens wrote. Kathleen Kingsbury, the Times Opinion editor, told NBC News it was her decision, in consultation with Sulzberger, not to run the column.
The paper's handling of the McNeil controversy has created new rifts among employees, some of whom believe the paper should have a zero-tolerance policy for any racist statements, and others who believe the Times ignored context and went too far in pressuring McNeil, a 45-year veteran of the paper, to leave.
Before he resigned, the paper told McNeil that he faced a demotion and further investigation if he remained at the paper, according to two sources at The Times familiar with the situation.
The Times launched an internal investigation into McNeil's behavior after he participated in a Times-organized trip to Peru in 2019 where, according to students on the trip, he made racially and culturally insensitive statements and at one point used the N-word. McNeil later said he had not used the word maliciously, but rather in asking a question about someone else's use of the word.
When the investigation was over, Baquet told the staff that he had concluded McNeil's use of the word was not a fireable offense. But after protests from employees, including a letter from about 150 Times staffers, Baquet changed his mind and issued the letter talking about intent.
It was that sentiment that Stephens took issue with in his unpublished column that would have run Monday, and those words that Baquet walked back in his meeting with employees on Thursday.
CORRECTION (Feb. 11, 2021, 5:49 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the nature of McNeil’s departure from The Times. He was not fired or forced to resign; according to new reporting added to the article, he was pressured to resign by being threatened with a demotion and an internal investigation if he remained.