Black Editor, Gray Lady: Gerald Boyd, Jayson Blair, and journalism’s diversity problem

Copyright The Columbia Journalism Review
Review: May / June 2010

My Times in Black and White: Race and Power at The New York Times | By Gerald M. Boyd | Lawrence Hill Books | 402 pages, $26.95

The entire arc of Gerald Boyd’s remarkable life is contained in the first few pages of his posthumous memoir, My Times in Black and White. In the opening paragraphs, he sketches out his duties as second-in-command in the newsroom—a job that had once seemed unimaginable for “a little black boy from the streets of poor St. Louis.” We are still in the prologue when Boyd is summoned to the fourteenth-floor suite of Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the paper’s publisher, one afternoon in June 2003.
By this point, only one dream remained for the fifty-two-year-old Boyd: to ascend to the post of executive editor. This would be the final, defining triumph in the classic life of an American striver. Instead, he was abruptly dismissed as managing editor, and cut loose by the institution that had defined his life, The New York Times.
The Jayson Blair scandal had exploded earlier that spring, and Sulzberger was desperate to shield the Times from further damage. Unfortunately, two separate feeding frenzies had already been set in motion. One involved the schadenfreude of industry competitors, who were delighted to see America’s greatest newspaper being brought low by a reporter who plagiarized and made things up. The other fueled a head-hunting expedition within the company itself, whose goal was to bring down a hard-driving (and now widely hated) executive editor—and along with him, his deputy, a black man who had dared to dream about reaching the very top.
As recounted by Boyd, the scene in Sulzberger’s office is brief, yet it packs an electric tension. In sum, the publisher did little explaining. Boyd, like his boss, Howell Raines, had to go. At the time, the dismissed man was unable to muster even a single question.
In retrospect, Boyd (who died prematurely of cancer in 2006) imputes his downfall to a crude act of racial association. Both he and Blair, the troubled young reporter at the heart of the plagiarism scandal, were black: if Blair were guilty, then Boyd must have been guilty of something, too.
Many people will be drawn to this book for its implicit promise of behind-the-scenes gossip about the Times. Their curiosity is understandable—although the paper is an institution committed to openness, transparency, and accountability in public life, its own internal workings can be often as difficult to parse as, say, procurement at the Pentagon.
Many others, of course, will consider this story old news—to the relief, one suspects, of various higher-ups at the paper. Boyd himself gained clarity on many things during his final, ruminative years. But perspective about the lasting importance of the Jayson Blair affair was not one of them. He seemed to imagine that historians would long remember the scandal that brought him down.
They will not. The industry has undergone such radical transformations since then, between the rise of the Internet and the gradual, agonizing death of the old newspaper business model, that the details of this episode already feel like ancient history.
This observation takes little away from Boyd’s book, which strongly deserves to be read. My Times in Black and White manages the rare feat of pulling off at least three distinctive narratives without any of them feeling forced or contrived.
The first of these is an affecting up-from-poverty story of the sort that used to be common in American letters. Boyd traces his family from places like Itta Bena, Mississippi, where they were Delta cotton farmers, to inner-city St. Louis, where the author wore painstakingly patched clothing and played with toys from the Salvation Army.
Boyd’s trajectory was lifted by Upward Bound, a forgotten element of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. While he was still a teenager, Boyd was placed in an integrated summer program on a college campus, where he became the layout editor of the program’s newspaper.
“I had always liked writing, but I had never experienced the high that came from having my words in a newspaper,” he recalls. “I could be angry or didactic or whimsical and light-hearted. And I could hide behind my byline, engaging and enraging readers as I saw fit. . . . I knew what I wanted to do with my life.”
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