A Cautionary Tale for Black Journalists

Gerald Boyd's posthumously published memoir about his tenure at the New York Times reveals the risks of kissing up to corporate culture.

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Gerald Boyd came this close to being on top of the world at the New York Times when he was named managing editor in 2001. In a taxi ride with his wife, Robin Stone, on his way to the Times' midtown office from ''our newly renovated and decorated brownstone,'' he turned to her, smiled and said, ''We got there.'' At the newsroom ceremony, Howell Raines, the No.1 editor in the newsroom, the man with whom Boyd would form a team, said to the gathered staff: '''He has a deep, deep commitment to the ideals and values of the New York Times. And I know he will be a worthy steward of those values. I believe Gerald will be a strong link in the timeless chain of New York Times quality, integrity, and commitment.''' And, oh, yeah, Boyd was black.

Then came the downfall. A knucklehead named Jayson Blair, another black man, decided that it made more sense for him to make up stories for the Times--to plagiarize--using the Internet and his drugged-out imagination while swigging scotch and smoking dope than it did to actually get off his rump, take advantage of a Times expense account and go do reporting on families of Iraqi veterans, the snipers in the Washington area, whatever. When he was caught in his web of lies in 2003, heads rolled, including Boyd's. ''The scandal had become everything that it was not. It was an opportunity for some in the newsroom to settle scores. It gave activists on both sides of the diversity debate an opportunity to weigh in, and they did, facts be damned,'' he says in the book.

To some extent My Times In Black And White: Race and Power at The New York Times (Lawrence Hill Books) is Boyd's pity party. Maybe that's because it was a first draft of his history. He died in 2006 at the age of 56 before turning this into the more profound book that it should have been. His widow, Robin Stone, a writer and editor, and many of his colleagues tried their best to complete the book with their own reflections on who Gerald Boyd was. He saw himself--no matter how many meals at four-star restaurants or vacations on Martha's Vineyard--as ''a little black boy up from the streets of poor St. Louis.''

''Second only to my family, the Times defined me; I was addicted to the paper and all it represented, cloaking myself in its power and prestige.'' But the ''Blair Affair,'' as he calls what erupted in 2003, ''cast me into my own personal hell.''

''With their fundamental principles in jeopardy in the wake of the Blair Affair, the Times did what its leaders thought was best for the franchise. Their message to me, however, was that I had intentionally jeopardized the franchise, something I would have found akin to drowning my own child.'' Too late he recognized what a lot of black and Latino alums of the Times had long before discovered. ''To look deeply into what happened is to see ugly twists and surprising turns, stories of loyalty, ignorance, arrogance and betrayal. Add to that toxic mix a potent dose of racial animosity, which was there all along, of course, but far more sinister than I allowed myself to believe.''

When he was initially hired by the Times in 1983, after years of reporting on presidents and politics in Washington for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, he met with the newsroom's chief administrative officer in New York. That man, James Greenfield, ''greeted me with a smile and a vigorous handshake'' and then said: '''I really enjoyed your clips [previous news articles]--they're so well written,' he said as I sat there smiling, pleased with myself. Then he added: 'Did you write them yourself, or did someone write them for you?'... It was my first exposure to the racial culture of the paper, the ugly underside of life at the Times.''

There are lessons here not just for up-and-coming journalists but also for any people of color who measure life's worth by who they kiss up to in a corporate culture. In the end, most of those types, starting with Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the Times publisher, turned their backs on Boyd, leaving him twisting in the wind. Some others, whom Boyd had not paid much attention to when he was butt-kissing turned out to be most loyal to him--though in some cases they showed their loyalty in clandestine ways so as not to rock the newsroom boat. ''I realized that I was fighting to preserve a reputation that had taken a lifetime to amass--while friends remained quiet and foes offered lies--and that brought a feeling of isolation that I had never before felt.''

I worked at the Times from 1980 to 1993 as a reporter and an editor, and I was never a Boyd favorite. I never got the scotch, dinner at the fancy townhouse digs or even a cigar. I am glad to see that he did serve as a mentor to many others--whites, blacks, men, women. He won many honors for that and for his hard-charging journalism, including a record number of Pulitzers and the top awards of the National Association of Black Journalists and the American Society of News Editors (ASNE).

The traditional news business is tanking. If he were still alive, Boyd's voice and big feet, and even his schmoozing, could possibly have made a difference as the minority professional journalist workforce declines daily. In 2009 alone, the number of minorities in full-time newsroom jobs, never really overwhelming in the first place despite publishers and editors making pledges for a few decades, went from 6,300 to 5,500. The overall newsroom workforce was 41,500 at the end of 2009. As for online journalism, there is no good evidence, based on a survey by ASNE. Most online outlets apparently ignored the survey, although according to Journal-isms ASNE will conduct "a new census" of online media this year. All of this is particularly sobering news for thousands who have earned degrees in communications or journalism this spring.

Read his memoir, published earlier this year, and keep in mind that you cannot sell your soul for corporate success--and you have got to be strategic in who you have as your mentors and those watching your back. Often they will not be in the corporate office. Boyd seems to have buried his head in the sand for too long and pushed away people, especially black people, who wanted to see him succeed.