Mr McNeil had a high-profile stumbling block last May when he appeared on CNN urging the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to resign over the agency’s treatment for the coronavirus outbreak. “His editors raised the subject with him to reiterate that it is his job to report the facts and not express his own opinions,” a Times spokeswoman said at the time. But it remained central to the greatest story in the world. The Times included its work on the pandemic in its Pulitzer submission, said two people familiar with it.
This high profile may have led to the Times internal reaction to the Peru trip being leaked to The Daily Beast. A few staff members then organized a letter saying “our community is outraged and in pain” and asked why Mr. McNeil’s behavior had not prevented him from dealing with a crucial story of complex racial differences. The letter did not request that he be fired, but that the Times review their policies.
Other journalists viewed the letter itself as unfair, an attack on the career of a seasoned reporter for a speech that was not directly related to his journalism. Some black journalists felt that their white counterparts were gathering in Mr. McNeil’s defense rather than worrying about the effect of his words. “You often wonder what your face-loving white colleagues are actually thinking or saying behind your back about you – or people like you,” tweeted a national reporter, John Eligon.
This is where a chaotic but in some ways ordinary management problem became something more. The employee’s letter leaked. The News Guild’s internal departments on this matter have been leaked. Critics searched Mr. McNeil’s old work and complained on Twitter. The Times became history.
According to The Daily Beast’s report, Mr McNeil told The Times that he saw no reason to apologize, but would start apologizing within 48 hours, said a person with direct knowledge of this document. Over the next week, he exchanged a number of drafts with the Times management. By February 5, The Times had made it clear that he would be placed on a less prestigious bar and that he could face ongoing questions from the company’s human resources department. It’s not surprising that he stepped down. In an email announcing his resignation, the editors sent in his apology note, which at the time appeared both unusually voluminous and oddly late.
The questions of the Times’ identity and political leanings are real. The differences in the newsroom cannot be easily resolved. But the newspaper needs to figure out how to resolve these issues more clearly: Is The Times the leading newspaper for like-minded, left-wing Americans? Or is it trying to keep a seemingly vanished center in a deeply divided country? Is it Elizabeth Warren or Joe Biden? One thing that is clear is that these issues are unlikely to be best resolved through layoffs or resignations with symbolic meaning or within the human resources department.
The Times needs to share its identity with the next generation of its audience – people like Ms. Shepherd, who said she was most surprised by the gap between Mr McNeil’s views and what she’d read on her favorite news agency.
“I wouldn’t have expected that from The Times,” she said. “You have the 1619 project. You do all these amazing reports about it and can you say something like that? “