TUESDAY, MARCH 2, 2021
We can think of several answers: Yesterday afternoon, we read Donald McNeil's lengthy account of the events which led to his recent forced departure from the New York Times.
What kind of person is Donald McNeil? Obviously, we can't tell you.
After reading his account of these widely-discussed events, he strikes us as a person who may be inclined to say a bit more than is necessarily required in some particular circumstance. Some people are so inclined, and it may get them in trouble.
It might be better if McNeil weren't so inclined, if he actually is. That said, according to the leading authority on his career, McNeil, who is 67 years old, is also this kind of person:
From 1995 to 2002, he was a foreign correspondent [for the New York Times] based in South Africa and France. It was during this time that McNeil began covering HIV/AIDS and took an interest in vaccine-preventable diseases.
In 2002, McNeil joined the science staff of The New York Times and was assigned to cover global health. At the time, McNeil had to convince his editor, Cornelia Dean, to allow him to cover "diseases that poor people die of." McNeil's later work on a series of stories about diseases on the brink of eradication was awarded the top prize by the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Prize in Journalism in 2006.
In 2013, he was featured in an acclaimed documentary about AIDS drugs, Fire in the Blood.
McNeil began covering the outbreak of the Zika virus for The New York Times in late 2015. He gained attention for his coverage of viral outbreaks. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he became known for his early and persistent warnings about the severity of the situation. McNeil appeared on The Daily to talk about COVID-19 on February 27, 2020, marking him as one of the first to bring widespread attention to the COVID-19 virus in the United States. He also interviewed Dr. Anthony Fauci about Fauci's working relationship with President Donald Trump. His early coverage and acclaimed writing made him one of the prominent journalists covering COVID-19.
We aren't qualified to assess McNeil's reporting on global health. Nor can we vouch for every claim in that account.
That said, the claims are derived from such sources as this interview / profile in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. It's also true that McNeil is the kind of person who won the John Chancellor Prize for Excellence in Journalism, just last year, for the quality of his reporting on the Covid-19 pandemic. Here's part of what the announcement alleged:
Columbia Journalism School announced today that Donald G. McNeil Jr., a science and health reporter at The New York Times, is the recipient of the 2020 John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism. For over a quarter-century, McNeil has dedicated his career to writing about infectious diseases that afflict people in developing countries and pandemics that have swept the globe. Since working as a correspondent based in Africa in the mid-1990’s, he has mastered reporting on viral outbreaks covering HIV-AIDS, Ebola, swine flu, malaria, Zika, and now coronavirus, among others. This year, his authoritative coverage helped inform and prepare millions of readers for the gravest health crisis the world has faced in a century.
"Sometimes the perfect reporter meets the perfect story. That happened this year. Donald knows science and medicine, and he is a determined and ambitious reporter who doesn't stop till he finds the truth," said Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times.
“Donald McNeil’s deeply reported work reflects an expertise rare in daily journalism,” said Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia Journalism School and a member of the Chancellor jury. “His dedication to the well-being of all people and his passion for justice reflect the integrity of the late John Chancellor.”
For whatever reason, the summers of 2018 and 2019 found McNeil on Times-sponsored educational junkets to Peru. He was cast in the role of public health expert for a bunch of middle-school and prep school kids who were paying $5500 to study public health issues.
According to Ben Smith's account of these events, those junkets began as a source of revenue for the Times.
"In 2012, when The New York Times was panicked about its financial future, this newspaper went into the travel business," Smith wrote. A few years later, this side venture had McNeil traipsing through Peru.
After reading McNeil's account of that trip, it sounds like he may have frequently said a bit more than was required. It sounds like he may have said such things to a bunch of prep school kids who may conceivably know a bit less than they believe they do.
(Teen-agers tend to be like that.)
We were struck by the early, gruesome "journalism" surrounding these events. The Daily Beast broke the non-story about the way a few of these kids had been offended by McNeil's alleged remarks. It was clear that the Beast had no idea what McNeil had actually said to these prep school students.
It was also clear that the Daily Beast wasn't concerned about that. The Beast had heard (correctly, as it turned out) that McNeil, on one occasion, had spoken the N-word to a few of those kids in a discussion of racist language, and that was enough for The Beast.
The Beast produced inflammatory accounts of McNeil's overall conduct, ignoring the fact that The Beast had no real idea what had ever been said.
Has our journalism ever been dumber? We're not sure it has.
After reading McNeil's account, it sounds to us that he frequently may have said a bit more than the occasion required—especially given the fact that he had been thrown in with a bunch of kids who may have been extremely sure of the things they thought they knew.
Based on what McNeil himself wrote, it sounds to us like he showed poor judgment on two occasions. That said, whose bad judgment had sent him off on this dumb money-making adventure in the first place?
The technical dumbness of our upper-end journalism is on constant wide display. Back in 2018, the New York Times' initial reporting on the incident at Smith College is a museum-level example of very bad, very dumb reporting.
Offhand, we can't think of a reason ever to say the N-word aloud. There are quite a few other words of that type which we'd never say aloud—insulting words in the realms of gender and race, words which have caused mountains of pain down through the long ugly years.
In our view, McNeil showed imperfect judgment in saying the N-word aloud, even in the context described. (One of the students raised the general topic.)
That said, we also can't think of a reason to produce the kind of journalism The Daily Beast did; to produce that initial report on the incident at Smith College; or to force the resignation of a reporter who actually knows a great deal about important subject matter, at least not over the events which seem to have occurred in Peru.
The vast range of people will think we're weirdly dumb in Our Town when we behave in these ways. People will think we're weirdly dumb, and lacking in basic judgment.
Who's to say that those people are wrong? These incidents, piled one on top of the next, send such people over to Trump. They feel that they will be massacred next by us know-it-all Dimmesdales, and who's to say that they're wrong?
We aren't inclined to blame teen-agers for lacking ultimate wisdom. It's the adult behavior at Smith College, and at the Times, which may cost us votes in Our Town.
The teens in Peru had spent the big bucks. Their accounts of what had occurred were quickly assumed to be sensible, accurate, reliable, beyond dispute.
"Verdict first," The Beast seemed to say. Commenters raced into line to agree.
We think of something the janitor at Smith College said—the janitor who was completely falsely accused by the college freshman:
“We used to joke, don’t let a rich student report you, because if you do, you’re gone.”
We aren't inclined to blame teenagers for having imperfect judgment. But after that, the adults step in. Their performances of virtue will quickly clear the room.
Is McNeil an expert on subject matter? Citizen, please! At times of cultural revolution, who needs distractions like that?