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Race and the Journalist: Gerald Boyd's 'My Times in Black and White'

5 years ago
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Robin D. Stone, the widow of former New York Times Managing Editor Gerald M. Boyd, kept her word. At a memorial I attended in New York after his death from lung cancer in 2006, she said she would ensure that a memoir he had left behind would be published.

And so it has. "My Times in Black and White: Race and Power at the New York Times," just released this week, is a vivid portrayal of the man and the journalist. The depiction is more than just a recitation of the well-known facts. It is highly personal, damning in its observations of some of his former colleagues and powerful in its insights into the perils of being successful and black.

It is, in short, an eye-opener, recounting how Boyd ultimately was made to feel that nothing he did, or could do, was ever enough to overcome racial attitudes.

I witnessed Boyd's talent, commitment and professionalism first-hand -- as one of his reporters when he was Metro editor and as part of the team he led to produce the Pulitzer Prize-winning series "How Race Is Lived in America" -- but I didn't realize how little I had known him until I read his book. I didn't know about a childhood marked by stark poverty and the firm parenting of a loving grandmother. Or about his radical college years at the University of Missouri, where he fought for equality for black students under the nom de guerre "Uganda X."

With his Hermes ties and quiet demeanor by the time I met him in the early 1990s, Boyd looked to me more like the newspaper executive he would become than the rabble-rouser he had been.

But I was keenly aware of his trailblazing. He had accomplished a lot of "firsts" as an African-American in his college years and early newspaper career and he continued that tradition at the Times, where he was White House correspondent before he began his ascent up the management ladder to the masthead and to the second most powerful position in the newsroom.

To many of us working for him, he became a mentor. In my case, he was the editor who took me aside to convince me to take an assignment in Miami as bureau chief when I was happily ensconced in New York, which proved to be a smart career move. He was an unwavering believer in the strength of a diversified staff -- a no-brainer that's too often put on the back burner by media employers -- and championed that cause.

"Knowledge of other cultures should be a prerequisite for anyone entering the business," he writes in "My Times." "Any decent journalist starts with a core of general knowledge. In newsrooms, that core assures that we all have enough smarts to produce a newspaper. . . . Yet there are no penalties for ignorance about race and ethnicity, about blacks, Latinos, Asians, or Native Americans, their histories, and their cultures. And journalism provides little incentive to learn."

Whether Gerald Boyd could have become the first African-American editor of the New York Times was a subject of debate among his colleagues, but it didn't matter. His tenure at the paper came crumbling down not even two years after he and Howell Raines, the executive editor, took the reins of the newsroom.

In "My Times," Boyd devotes the last 100 or so pages to telling his side of that tumultuous period, which includes the discovery that a young black reporter by the name of Jayson Blair had plagiarized or fabricated stories.

Boyd is particularly angered that in the media coverage of the scandal there was the assumption that Blair managed to get hired full time and then get better and better assignments despite his checkered track record (including dozens of corrections on his articles) because of Boyd. Had Blair been white, Boyd argues, no one would have jumped to such a conclusion so readily.

As far as I'm concerned, the main culprit in the Jayson Blair affair was Jayson Blair. As many other plagiarism cases have shown, ultimately there's only so much that managers can do to guard against a dishonest journalist since so much of what happens in a newsroom is based on trust.

I sat diagonally across from Blair in the newsroom and I never saw any evidence that Blair and Boyd were particularly close. I, of course, didn't know any more than what I saw, but Boyd's complaint raises valid questions. Would the suspicion of favoritism have been as automatic had the two of them been white? Why is it so often about race when nonwhites are involved and not the other way around? Why would anyone with Boyd's credentials condone incompetence or dishonesty that would set back diversity efforts?

Boyd seems to address those questions when he writes: "Personally, I always felt that my colleagues never judged me on merit alone. I accepted that fact, but it hurt, deeply at times."

It is also stunning and painful to hear, especially for the many of us who admired such an accomplished man, dead at 56.

In an afterword, his widow tells how she took their son, Zachary, to Washington for the inauguration of the country's first black president because that's what Gerald would have done. On those days when she couldn't get up from bed and out of the depths of depression after his passing, she writes, she heard him yelling: "What the hell are you doing still in bed at 11:30!"

"Get up! Get going!"

And, just as daunting, she had to read his draft for the book, "delicately nipping and refining" so that it'd see the light of day.

Good job, Robin. I'm sure Gerald is whispering, "Thank you."
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