Postcard From Peru: Why the Morality Plays Inside The Times Won’t Stop

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Mr. McNeil had one high-profile stumble last May when he appeared on CNN and called for the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to resign over the agency’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak. “His editors have discussed the issue with him to reiterate that his job is to report the facts and not to offer his own opinions,” a Times spokeswoman said at the time. But he remained central to the biggest story in the world. The Times included his work on the pandemic in its Pulitzer submission, two people familiar with it said.

That high profile may have led to the leak of The Times’s internal response to the Peru trip to The Daily Beast. Some employees then organized a letter saying that “our community is outraged and in pain” and asking why Mr. McNeil’s conduct hadn’t prevented him from covering a crucial story with complex racial disparities. The letter didn’t call for him to be fired, but for The Times to review its policies.

Other journalists considered the letter itself unfair, an attack on a veteran reporter’s career over speech that wasn’t directly connected to his journalism. Some Black journalists felt their white colleagues were rallying to Mr. McNeil’s defense rather than worrying about his words’ impact. “You often wonder what your white colleagues who are lovely to your face are actually thinking or saying about you — or people like you — behind your back,” a national reporter, John Eligon, tweeted.

This is where a messy but, in some ways, ordinary management problem became something more. The employees’ letter leaked. The News Guild’s own internal divisions over the matter leaked. Critics scoured Mr. McNeil’s old work, and complained on Twitter. The Times became the story.

After The Daily Beast report, Mr. McNeil told The Times he saw no reason to apologize, but within 48 hours was beginning to draft an apology, a person with direct knowledge of that document said. He exchanged a series of drafts with Times management over the next week. By Feb. 5, The Times had made clear that he would be moved to a less prestigious beat, and that he could face ongoing questions from the company’s H.R. department. It’s not surprising that he resigned. Editors forwarded his apology note, which seemed by then both uncharacteristically profuse and oddly late, in an email that announced his resignation.

The questions about The Times’s identity and political leanings are real; the differences inside the newsroom won’t be easily resolved. But the paper needs to figure out how to resolve these issues more clearly: Is The Times the leading newspaper for like-minded, left-leaning Americans? Or is it trying to hold what seems to be a disappearing center in a deeply divided country? Is it Elizabeth Warren or Joe Biden? One thing that’s clear is that these questions probably aren’t best arbitrated through firings or resignations freighted with symbolic meaning, or hashed out inside the human resources department.

The Times will have to navigate its identity in tandem with the next generation of its audience — people like Ms. Shepherd, who said that she was most surprised by the gap between Mr. McNeil’s views and what she’d read in her favorite news outlet.

“That’s not what I would have expected from The Times,” she said. “You have the 1619 Project. You guys do all this amazing reporting on this, and you can say something like that?”

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