Why a White Woman and a Black Man Will Lead the USA's Top Paper

The appointment of Jill Abramson and Dean Baquet is rooted in a long legal struggle.

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The strongest resistance came from Tom Johnson, the senior black reporter, who told the group that he could resolve any complaints directly with Executive Editor A.M. (Abe) Rosenthal. We considered that insulting, akin to the plantation rule of one slave designated by the master to speak on behalf of all. Nathaniel Sheppard, another reporter, was so upset with Johnson that he looked him in the eye and remarked, "Tom, I am so disappointed. I used to have the highest respect for you. Now I don't."   

The tension among us percolated from then on, to final settlement in 1981. Our frequent meetings to discuss progress became more and more contentious as we argued over every move by the company; for example, we turned down as insulting the first settlement offer by the Times: $100,000. Some in the group wanted to accept and get it over with. I thought the white women made a mistake in accepting a $300,000 settlement, but they gained more than money.

An Unhappy Settlement

Even the offer we eventually approved -- some $2 million and promises of change -- was deemed inadequate by some of us. As I noted in my upcoming memoir, I felt our "group was coming apart, as the days and weeks rolled by slowly. I reluctantly agreed to the lawyers' suggestion to take the offer out of fear of a great implosion." Benilda Rosario was so upset that she termed the settlement "a joke and stormed out of the room.

"We were about to kill each other near the conclusion of the legal procedure, which should have been a time of celebration … some of us hardly spoke to each other afterwards," I wrote.

In fact, our seven-person steering committee went so far out of the way to try to satisfy the named plaintiffs that our lawyers threatened to disassociate themselves from us, feeling that our process to divide the money was unfairly weighted in favor of the plaintiffs and the 16 who had agreed to be witnesses in the case. We went back to the drawing board.  

But for the most part, the Times met the terms of the agreement. I was on committees that monitored and enforced them. We established training positions for reporters and copy editors, set up a scholarship to fund tuition for several students and increased money for an already-existing tuition-refund program. Management also agreed that reporters on the metropolitan desk and new hires would be given the opportunity to spend at least one year on 10 important beats, like City Hall, politics and courts.

The paper stepped up its minority recruitment, spending several hundred thousand dollars adding more blacks, Hispanics and Asians (even one Native American, a first). In the early 1980s, there were only two Hispanics on the reporting staff: Juan de Onis in Latin America and Alfonso Narvaez on metro, and one photographer, Lee Romero. In addition, there was no retaliation against the litigants, as some feared. In fact, several, including Benilda Rosario, were given promotions.

The Outcome

The quick change in tone, effort and pace was ordered by the publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger, and his son and successor, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. The elder Sulzberger set up several affirmative action committees throughout the company, including its affiliates and small papers and television stations. His son increased the pace, personally leading the push to improve the paper's numbers. He became chairman of the diversity committee of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.