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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Jill Abramson (far left) and Dean Baquet (far right)

When I heard the historic announcement from Times Square the other day, that America's top newspaper had named a woman as executive editor, my thoughts drifted back to the 1972-1981 decade at the paper, and the words of Dickens -- almost cliché nowadays -- seemed apt: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."  

The New York Times, where I spent most of my career, appointed Jill Abramson to lead the newsroom. Her No. 2 will be Dean Baquet, named managing editor. It will be the first time the two top positions at the 160-year-old newspaper have been filled by a woman and a black man. That is a groundbreaking team.

The monumental change deserves more attention than the relatively subdued reaction it received. It also deserves more background and history, coming nearly three decades after women and minorities settled separate discrimination lawsuits against the paper. To my mind, the promotions represented the culmination of that legal action.

The suits, by minorities in 1972, and women two years later, accused the Times' newsroom managers of favoring white men in hiring, promotion, beat assignments and wages. At the time, not one black had risen above the position of reporter, and the highest-ranking women worked in "women's news" and covered social events.      

The decade of litigation was a period of unprecedented high tension at the paper. While women were united in their effort, there was much division among minorities, and the entire episode took a heavy toll on us. My promotion as the first black editor on a news desk certainly was a result of the legal action and agitation, as were those of a few more, including Gerald Boyd, who eventually rose to managing editor in 2001, a very important first. But the protracted battle divided minorities in such a way that the unity and cohesion of that period seemed lost for good.

My late colleague Nan Robertson skillfully and beautifully chronicled the problems of women at the Times in her book, The Girls in the Balcony. Women greatly outnumbered blacks, and we were aware that their progress would far outdistance ours, immediately and in the future. Nevertheless, we did not let that bother us; during the litigations, both groups worked at being good allies and supported each other, and there was never rancor.

Our case was originally called a "black" suit, although the name-plaintiff, Benilda Rosario, was black Puerto Rican and proud of it, and another plaintiff was Morgan Jin, Chinese, who boasted of his admiration of Mao Zedong as he passed out Maoist literature to baffled young blacks. The name was changed to "minority" for obvious reasons.

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That class and ethnic tension went on for five years, until the attorneys for the plaintiffs, in 1977, enlisted Roger Wilkins, an editorial board member, and me, as a new editor, to lobby our fellow journalists to participate. They felt that if the two of us signed on, others would; plus, management would finally take the case seriously. The lawyers were correct on both counts. Eventually 16 of us signed on as witnesses, joining the plaintiffs as willing to testify against the Times at trial.

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