Three recent, controversial “resignations” from The New York Times display a curious pattern of behavior by top management, namely, 180-degree reversals, decisions made one way and, after protest from some staff members, made the other. The pattern underscores the changing culture at the Grey Lady and to a degree, in journalism today.
The three compelled “resignations” were those of Opinion Editor James Bennet after publishing Senator Tom Cotton’s provocative column urging military action against racial protestors; audio journalist Andy Mills in the wake of the flawed podcast The Caliphate; and Donald G. McNeil Jr., the much-praised science reporter who apparently used the n-word in a discussion with students about racist language on an overseas Times Journey in 2019. And, in each case, management investigated, resolved the issue to its satisfaction and pressed ahead with valued employees who were “disciplined” in various ways. In each case, a group of staff members subsequently objected, their objections became public, and the top leadership reversed their initial decisions, sending the staffers packing. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
Each of the three cases is different, and complicated in different ways. And, in each case, management has indicated that there is more to the story than has been made public. Taking the publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, and executive editor, Dean Baquet, at their word, as I do, it is still hard to understand the reversals. Did new information come to light? Were lies uncovered? Or, did the embarrasment of the internal revolt becoming public prove to be too much?
Sensitive personnel decisions like these are normally kept private, but these cases have attracted so much attention and caused so much controversy, that The Times needs to come clean with the whole story.
In which case, what does the controversy portend for the future? More sensitivity to racial and other issues? More consultation with staff, whose views have been largely ignored in the past? A management backlash? A staff revolt?
What is clear is that the fuss over the McNeil case is not over. Witness Ben Smith’s lengthy Media Equation column about it today and the fact that McNeil says he is not free to discuss the matter fully until his separation from the paper becomes final on March 1.