The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
See here; an excerpt:
Last weekend, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens wrote a piece criticizing the rationale behind the forced ouster of Times reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr., but it was never published…. Since then, the piece has circulated among Times staffers and others — and it was from one of them, not Stephens himself, that The Post obtained it. We publish his spiked column here in full….
Late last week, Donald G. McNeil Jr., a veteran science reporter for The Times, abruptly departed from his job following the revelation that he had uttered a racial slur while on a New York Times trip to Peru for high school students. In the course of a dinner discussion, he was asked by a student whether a 12-year-old should have been suspended by her school for making a video in which she had used a racial slur.
In a written apology to staff, McNeil explained what happened next: "To understand what was in the video, I asked if she had called someone else the slur or whether she was rapping or quoting a book title. In asking the question, I used the slur itself."
In an initial note to staff, editor-in-chief Dean Baquet noted that, after conducting an investigation, he was satisfied that McNeil had not used the slur maliciously and that it was not a firing offense. In response, more than 150 Times staffers signed a protest letter. A few days later, Baquet and managing editor Joe Kahn reached a different decision.
"We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent," they wrote on Friday afternoon. They added to this unambiguous judgment that the paper would "work with urgency to create clearer guidelines and enforcement about conduct in the workplace, including red-line issues on racist language." …
[But t]here is an elementary difference between citing a word for the purpose of knowledge and understanding and using the same word for the purpose of insult and harm. Lose this distinction, and you also lose the ability to understand the things you are supposed to be educated to oppose.
No wonder The Times has never previously been shy about citing racial slurs in order to explain a point. Here is a famous quote by the late Republican strategist Lee Atwater that has appeared at least seven times in The Times, most recently in 2019, precisely because it powerfully illuminates the mindset of a crucial political player.
"You start out in 1954 by saying, 'Nigger, nigger, nigger.' By 1968 you can't say 'nigger' — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, 'forced busing,' 'states' rights' and all that stuff."
Is this now supposed to be a scandal? Would the ugliness of Atwater's meaning have been equally clearer by writing "n—, n—, n—"? A journalism that turns words into totems — and totems into fears — is an impediment to clear thinking and proper understanding….
We are living in a period of competing moral certitudes, of people who are awfully sure they're right and fully prepared to be awful about it. Hence the culture of cancellations, firings, public humiliations and increasingly unforgiving judgments. The role of good journalism should be to lead us out of this dark defile. Last week, we went deeper into it.