A column highly critical of New York Times editor-in-chief Dean Baquet by opinion columnist Bret Stephens was axed by Kathleen Kingsbury, editor of the Times’ opinion section earlier this week. The column was about the unfairness Stephens perceived in firing long-time Times reporter Don McNeil for his use of a racial slur answering a question while chaperoning a group of students on a trip to Peru.
One of the students asked McNeil if one of her friends should have been disciplined for making a video a few years ago that featured the use of the “n” word.
“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,” McNeil explained.
Clearly, McNeil’s intent was not to insult or injure but rather to gather information. But Baquet dismissed McNeil’s explanation as irrelevant.
At first, Baquet responded to the newsroom outrage by severely reprimanding McNeil. But when 150 Times staffers signed a letter demanding McNeil be fired, Baquet caved.
“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.”
“Regardless of intent” are fighting words to Stephens. And even though the Times refused to run his column, the New York Post picked it up.
It’s a scorcher.
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.
Teaching thoughtfulness isn’t done anymore. The young staffers in the Times newsroom who called for McNeil’s head really don’t know any better. They are impervious to ideas that do not fit into their neat little ideological boxes. It’s the opposite of thoughtfulness. Their opposition is reflexive and yes, thoughtless.
They feel. They don’t think. If they bothered to think, they’d figure out that their intolerance is a form of oppression.
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.
“Every serious moral philosophy, every decent legal system and every ethical organization cares deeply about intention.” But not the New York Times or the minions of the cancel culture.