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. Stephens told colleagues the column was killed by publisher A.G. Sulzberger. 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.
Every serious moral philosophy, every decent legal system and every ethical organization cares deeply about intention.
It is the difference between murder and manslaughter. It is an aggravating or extenuating factor in judicial settings. It is a cardinal consideration in pardons (or at least it was until Donald Trump got in on the act). It’s an elementary aspect of parenting, friendship, courtship and marriage.
A hallmark of injustice is indifference to intention. Most of what is cruel, intolerant, stupid and misjudged in life stems from that indifference. Read accounts about life in repressive societies — I’d recommend Vaclav Havel’s “Power of the Powerless” and Nien Cheng’s “Life and Death in Shanghai” — and what strikes you first is how deeply the regimes care about outward conformity, and how little for personal intention.
I’ve been thinking about these questions in an unexpected connection. 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.”
This is not a column about the particulars of McNeil’s case. Nor is it an argument that the racial slur in question doesn’t have a uniquely ugly history and an extraordinary capacity to wound.
This is an argument about three words: “Regardless of intent.” Should intent be the only thing that counts in judgment? Obviously not. Can people do painful, harmful, stupid or objectionable things regardless of intent? Obviously.
Do any of us want to live in a world, or work in a field, where intent is categorically ruled out as a mitigating factor? I hope not.
That ought to go in journalism as much, if not more, than in any other profession. What is it that journalists do, except try to perceive intent, examine motive, furnish context, explore nuance, explain varying shades of meaning, forgive fallibility, make allowances for irony and humor, slow the rush to judgment (and therefore outrage), and preserve vital intellectual distinctions?
Journalism as a humanistic enterprise — as opposed to hack work or propaganda — does these things in order to teach both its practitioners and consumers to be thoughtful. There 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.
So too is a journalism that attempts to proscribe entire fields of expression. “Racist language” is not just about a single infamous word. It’s a broad, changing, contestable category. There are many people — I include myself among them — who think that hardcore anti-Zionism is a form of anti-Semitism. That’s also official policy at the State Department and the British Labour Party. If anti-Semitism is a form of racism, and racist language is intolerable at The Times, might we someday forbid not only advocacy of anti-Zionist ideas, but even refuse to allow them to be discussed?
The idea is absurd. But that’s the terrain we now risk entering.
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.