Two Journalists Face Reputation Crisis

Photo by Jakayla Toney on Unsplash

Reporters are not immune to mistakes, errors and facing the intense heat of crisis in name and career due to damage to their reputation. They too must accept punishments for their judgment, decision-making and behavior.

Two New York Times journalists are in the midst of that pain now, having resigned due to actions deemed to be unacceptable to the brand of the media giant.

In his article at The Hill, Two New York Times journalists to leave amid criticism of behavior, Tal Axelrod details the end of the work at the paper of Donald McNeil, a science reporter, and Andy Mills, an audio journalist.

The past is not always the past in the minds of other people, especially if what constitutes was harmful and not addressed and corrected.

With McNeil, allegations of inappropriate comments, including a racial slur, came to light, reportedly when he was a guide on a company-sponsored student trip to Peru in 2019.

Dean Baquet, the Times’s executive editor, and Joe Kahn, the managing editor, did what they had to do, especially in today’s culture.

“We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent,” they wrote. “We are committed to building a news report and company that reflect our core values of integrity and respect, and will work with urgency to create clearer guidelines and enforcement about conduct in the workplace, including red-line issues on racist language.”

McNeil seemed to be in shock, stumbling to explain yet eventually, realizing that what he was saying was not important to his employer or critics, did what was necessary and stated “I should not have done that.”

“Originally, I thought the context in which I used this ugly word could be defended. I now realize that it cannot. It is deeply offensive and hurtful.

“For offending my colleagues — and for anything I’ve done to hurt The Times, which is an institution I love and whose mission I believe in and try to serve — I am sorry. I let you all down,” he lamented.

Takeaway — At the time McNeil spoke the slur, he didn’t appear to be arrogant, ugly and insensitive, yet he could have shown greater respect and self control, shown special care in representing his employer, exhibiting social awareness and showing empathy.

His communication was reckless and exposed him greatly, without any level of protection to his name, reputation and career and personal well-being.

McNeil’s career doesn’t have to be over and with wisdom of future responses and efforts, it won’t be, yet a prestigious post at an employer he loved and doing work there that he was passionate about doing, is dead, buried and gone.

Mills’ story is different yet not any less painful. He helped create “The Daily” podcast and was producer and co-host of “Caliphate,” a 2018 podcast exposed for its glaring errors.

Reportedly, he and the project trusted a source “whose account ended up being false or exaggerated.” That journalistic failure was compounded by accusations against Mills of sexual harassment, also in 2018. He too is, understandably dismayed by the loss of a valued position with his employer.

“Today I’m resigning from The New York Times. Those are not words I ever wanted to write,” Mills wrote. “While I remain proud of our team and what we were able to accomplish with ‘Caliphate,’ getting any aspect of any story wrong, by any degree, is a journalist’s worst nightmare.

In regards to the harassment accusations, Mills’ statement could have done better than trying to explain in a manner that, regardless of any facts, rarely accomplishes the mission of receiving understanding. What it does do is inspire dumbfounded or resentful thoughts in critics, “he just doesn’t get it!”

Mills spoke specifically to his errors yet doesn’t seem to comprehend that most people will never relate to that behavior.

“Like all human beings, I have made mistakes that I wish I could take back. Nine years ago, when I first moved to New York City, I regularly attended monthly public radio meet up parties where I looked for love and eventually earned a reputation as a flirt. Eight years ago during a team meeting, I gave a colleague a back rub. Seven years ago I poured a drink on a coworker’s head at a drunken bar party. I look back at those actions with extraordinary regret and embarrassment.

Takeaway — Admirable that he didn’t omit what he did yet his statement will be interpreted by many as downplaying his behavior, painting himself as a man having fun, seeking connection. That crisis communications in response his to actions that helped lead, in some part, to the end of his career at the Times, is ineffective as it reveals low-levels of self awareness, missing empathy and clearly not fully accepting responsibility for how he was expected to comport himself as a decent human being with other people.

He could have led with what he saved for last, “I look back at those actions with extraordinary regret and embarrassment,” and not instead spent time, energy and breath with rationalization.

However, Mills too can prove resilient and recover.

It will take deeper level remorse, courage and commitment yet if he can summons it, he, like McNeil, can rise from his name, reputation and career currently in ashes, to earn exciting new opportunities.

Michael Toebe is a specialist who helps individuals and organizations with further building, protecting, restoring or reconstructing reputations. He is the founder of Reputation-Quality.com, Reputation-Interviews.com, RQCalls.com and QSR-Guide.com and author of “Your Reputation Signature,” available on Amazon.

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Michael Toebe is the founder and specialist at Reputation Quality, a consultancy, advisory, coaching and communications services practice.

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Reputation Specialist Essays

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Michael Toebe is the founder and specialist at Reputation Quality, a consultancy, advisory, coaching and communications services practice.

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