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Top NY Times reporter accused of racism, using 'N-word' admonished by editor but remains on job

Donald McNeil Jr., who has emerged as the paper's top coronavirus reporter, is accused of making offensive comments on a 2019 trip to Peru

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New York Times
New York Times
(Mario Tama / Getty Images)
Updated: January 29, 2021 - 10:12am

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Donald McNeil Jr., the New York Times' star coronavirus pandemic reporter, is under intense scrutiny for allegedly using offensive and racist language on a Times-led student trip to Peru in 2019.

However, McNeil appears to have kept his job, following a review of the matter by the newspaper.

Thursday night, Times executive editor Dean Baquet wrote an email to his newsroom discussing McNeil's remarks, saying that he was initially "outraged," but authorized an investigation and concluded McNeil's remarks were "offensive and that he showed extremely poor judgment, but it did not appear to me that that his intentions were hateful or malicious."

For the past several summers, prior to the pandemic, the paper has sent some of its top reporters on high-school student trips around the world to serve as guides on the expeditions that the Times hopes will instill educational value in addition to giving travelers a foreign vacation. 

McNeil, a health and science reporter with more than four-decades of experience at the Times joined a "Student Journey" group to Peru to focus on community-based health care in the area. 

According to a new report by the Daily Beast, following the trip multiple students relayed to their parents a series of accusations against McNeil: that he had made a number of racist and sexist comments throughout the trip, including twice using the n-word, and repeatedly saying he does not believe in the concept of white privilege. 

"Not only did Donald say various racist comments on numerous occasions, but he was also disrespectful to many students during mealtimes and in other settings," wrote one student in a review of the trip. 

"I expect immediate action on the actions taken by Donald, I am deeply disappointed about the New York Times because of the comments he made during our trip. I think firing him would even be appropriate," wrote another.

In a statement given to the Daily Beast, the Times said, "In 2019, Donald McNeil, Jr. participated in a Student Journeys as an expert. We subsequently became aware of complaints by some of the students on the trip concerning certain statements Donald had made during the trip. We conducted a thorough investigation and disciplined Donald for statements and language that had been inappropriate and inconsistent with our values. We found he had used bad judgment by repeating a racist slur in the context of a conversation about racist language. In addition, we apologized to the students who had participated in the trip."

Over the course of his extensive career, McNeil has been much lauded for his coverage of infectious diseases, including reporting done on the Zika and Ebola outbreaks last-decade, as well as the AIDS crisis. He has served as a foreign correspondent reporting from Europe and Africa, and has emerged as a leading journalistic voice on the coronavirus pandemic. 

According to the Daily Beast, the Times has plans to submit McNeil's coverage of the global coronavirus pandemic to the Pulitzer Prize committee this year as a contender for the public-service journalism award.

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