Race and politics at the New York Times

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GeorgeCurryBox

(NNPA)—Slightly more than three years ago, Gerald M. Boyd, one of my best friends, died of lung cancer at the age of 56. He had been promoted to managing editor of the New York Times, the highest position an African-American journalist had ever attained at the nation’s most influential newspaper. But his career at the newspaper abruptly ended in 2003 when it was discovered that Jayson Blair, another African-American, was a serial plagiarizer.

At the time of his death, Gerald was finishing up his memoir. His wife, Robin D. Stone, has seen the project to completion and the result is a book titled, “My Times in Black and White: Race and Power at The New York Times” (Lawrence Hill Books).

Gerald has written a revealing insider’s account of an African-American’s quick rise to the second-highest ranking editorial position at the New York Times and his sudden fall from grace as a result of his close association with Howell Raines, a deeply disliked White executive editor, and being unfairly linked to Jayson Blair, a fraud masquerading as a Black reporter.

I knew Gerald all of his professional career, dating back to the early 1970s when we both worked as reporters for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. As I have written earlier in this space, we lived across the street from each other in St. Louis, played cards together, enjoyed flag football on weekends, started the St. Louis Minority Journalism Workshop together in 1976, helped establish the Greater St. Louis Association of Black Journalists and spent long hours on the road together, covering the campaigns of elder George Bush and Jesse Jackson.

One of the most striking things about Gerald’s memoir is how he naively believed that with his sterling accomplishments—covering the White House, leading two series that won the New York Times Pulitzer Prize, studying as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard—he would be judged on the basis of his talent, not his race.

Boy, was he wrong on that one.

His first clue should have been the conversation he had with Jimmy Greenfield, who handled newsroom administration at the Times.

“I really enjoyed your clips—they’re so well written,” Greenfield told Gerald. “Did you write them yourself, or did someone write them for you?” Gerald replied, “Of course I wrote them myself!”

Gerald explained, “Later, I thought I should have told him how offensive his question was. I would understand the context: the Times was a place where Blacks felt they had to convince their White peers that they were good enough to be there. It was my first exposure to the racial culture of the paper, the ugly underside of life at the Times.”

It wouldn’t be Gerald’s last exposure to the ugly underside of the newspaper.

After Gerald became an editor, Soma Golden, the newly-minted national editor, proposed that Gerald become Atlanta bureau chief. The book recounts that Golden told him, “You are perfect for the job. You can cover the South as a Black man, bringing nuance that no White reporter could.”

As proud as Gerald was of his race, he wanted to cover the news as a reporter, not as a Black man.

“Clearly, race had motivated Golden more than talent,” Gerald wrote. “I was glad that I had declined her offer.”

But he didn’t decline the offer of Howell Raines, the newly-appointed executive editor, to become his managing editor, the No. 2 position in the newsroom.

Gerald would later recount that Raines had told him, “You are such a great partner, I’m so glad I picked you.”

However, Raines expressed a different opinion after the Jayson Blair explosion caused their forced resignations. In 2004, Raines wrote a long article about the Times in the Atlantic Monthly.

Referring to Raines, Gerald said: “He portrayed the staff as mediocre, the publisher as lacking backbone. He was equally harsh in his comments about me. ‘I also wanted to see, as Arthur [Sulzberger Jr., the publisher] himself needed to, what Gerald Boyd could do in the high-demand situation,’ he revealed, reducing my selection to a question mark. My career at the Times was one of measurable accomplishments that no one could deny. Yet, Raines’ depiction was of a managing editor trainee. This was even more painful than the dozens of inaccurate descriptions of me as Jayson Blair’s mentor.”

After their dismissals, Raines wrote Gerald a letter suggesting that they meet for drinks.

“I never responded to his letter,” Gerald said. “I was tired of being betrayed, tired of the Times, tired of him.”

Gerald was savvy enough to know that in order to move up at the New York Times, he needed a rabbi, someone to serve as a sponsor. Howell Raines was one of those persons, pushing for Gerald to become managing editor. The flip side of that equation, however, is that when you become a tandem, as he and Raines were, you begin a downward trajectory whenever your partner flames out.

When Raines was kicked out the door, Gerald was pushed out, too. In fact, he went to his grave wondering why the Times didn’t find another spot for him, perhaps as a columnist or a foreign correspondent. In the end, he painfully realized he had cared more for the New York Times than the Times had cared about him.

(George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator and media coach. He can be reached through his website, http://www.georgecurry.com You can also follow him at http://www.twitter.com/currygeorge.)

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