NY Times defends ‘guest essay’ for using N-word in context after forcing out reporter who did the same thing

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The New York Times is defending a “guest essay” that used the full N-word in context after it forced out one of its veteran reporters for doing the same thing. 

On Friday, the Times published an excerpt of the book “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter,” written by Black linguist and Columbia University associate professor John McWhorter, who delved into the history of the N-word.

McWhorter claimed that the “outright taboo status” of the N-word “began only at the end of the 20th century” and pointed to the revelation of Detective Mark Fuhrman’s use of the word in the OJ Simpson trial as the beginning of a “new era” as Christopher Darden, a Black prosecutor in the case who refused to say the word. 


Mr. Darden’s reticence was a symptom of something already in the air by 1995: the larger shift in sensibility that rendered slurs, in general, the new profanity,” McWhorter explained. “The N-word euphemism was an organic outcome, as was an increasing consensus that “[n—–]” itself is forbidden not only in use as a slur but even when referred to.” 

Donald McNeil was the New York Times' longtime science reporter and was one of the star journalists covering the coronavirus pandemic.

Donald McNeil was the New York Times’ longtime science reporter and was one of the star journalists covering the coronavirus pandemic.

The Times’ editors also published a piece defending the guest essay. 

“Generally speaking, at The Times, we don’t use asterisks or dashes to obscure obscenities. But even if we were willing to break with this practice, McWhorter’s piece is about the word itself — its etymology, sound and spelling. Using asterisks or dashes to veil the word would render this discussion incomprehensible, as would using a phrase like ‘the N-word,'” Times opinion politics editor Ezekiel Kweku and Times opinion editor Kathleen Kingsbury explained. “Employing that phrase as a stand-in would also make the essay hard to follow, since part of the article concerns the distinction between the use of ‘the N-word’ and the slur itself. So we came to the conclusion that printing the word was the right solution.

However, the Times had a much different attitude towards its now-former reporter Donald McNeil Jr., who earlier this year was forced out of the paper after it was revealed that he used the N-word during a 2019 educational trip in Peru.


McNeil, who was the Times’ star coronavirus reporter during the pandemic, resigned in February after 45 years at the paper amid a revolt from over 150 of his colleagues who expressed outrage over the incident.

Journalists outside the Times rallied behind McNeil after details emerged from that 2019 trip indicated that he was using the slur in the context of a conversation about the word itself. 

In response to Fox News, a spokesperson for the Times pointed to the editors’ piece to explain the paper’s use of the N-word but did not address any inquiries about McNeil.

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