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.

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

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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.

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.