A Black Man's Trials at the 'Times'

There is no such thing as a happy or rationally run newsroom. Anyone who has worked in journalism pretty much assumes that. But could America's greatest newspaper really be led by such vicious, untrustworthy people? That's one of many questions one is left with upon reading Gerald Boyd's angry yet thoughtful post-humous memoir detailing his rise through the hierarchy of The New York Times.

In September 2001, Boyd became the Times's managing editor—the first African-American to have soared to such heights. And then along came a plagiarist named Jayson Blair, whose sins set in motion a series of events that, in summer 2003, left Boyd jobless and disgraced. Three years later, Boyd died of cancer at the age of 56, never having recovered from his very public humiliation. My Times in Black and White, published by Lawrence Hill Books, is Boyd's chance to set the record straight.

Boyd and I were not buddies, but he had been to my home and I to his, and we occasionally shared meals and conversation. I also know many of the players he profiles—and occasionally savages—in his book. Still, My Times was a revelation.

I knew that Boyd's journey had sometimes been difficult and lonely. But I was nonetheless struck by just how alone he often felt—and how vulnerable he was to the slights and suspicions he thought too frequently came his way. "I kept the Real Gerald M. Boyd tucked safely out of sight while the newspaperman navigated the corridors of power," he writes. "[This] was the only way I thought I could function, survive and succeed."

Boyd was a poor boy from St. Louis who lost his mother as a toddler, was abandoned by his father, and was raised by his paternal grandmother. Thanks to an antipoverty program called Upward Bound and a scholarship to the University of Missouri, Boyd escaped the poverty of his childhood and began his journalistic ascent. He became a star at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and was later seduced by the Times, where he became a White House correspondent and held a series of management jobs, culminating with the managing editorship.

Boyd was a symbol—of either racial progress or affirmative action run amok, depending on how one viewed his achievement. Boyd understood that. Writing about Howell Raines, his boss and benefactor, Boyd asks, "Could his decision to name me managing editor be rooted in nothing more than white guilt over four centuries of oppression?"

I believe Boyd's assertion that he had no special relationship with Blair, the plagiarist. From Boyd's perspective, such a relationship would have made no sense. Apparently, the belief he was Blair's mentor took hold for no other reason than that both Boyd and Blair were black, and many people seemed incapable of seeing much beyond Boyd's color—despite his having helped to lead the Times to an unprecedented seven Pulitzer Prizes in one year.

Some 20 years ago, while researching a book on America's great newspaper companies, I interviewed most of the Times's top executives. Katharine Darrow, then general counsel, talked of different discrimination complaints brought against the paper by minority and by female employees. Both cases were settled, but the dynamics were very different: "I always felt in the women's case that it was like a divorce or a custody proceeding. It was really a family being rent asunder … There wasn't any of that in the minorities' case. And I suppose it's for a simple reason. There were so few minorities, so few longstanding preexisting relationships …the gap was too wide." Boyd never quite bridged that gap. After he died, I went to two memorial services—one attended mostly by blacks, the other attended largely by whites, including most of the brass of the Times.

Some months after stepping down, Boyd met publisher Arthur Sulzberger for breakfast. "Despite exploring the issue repeatedly in therapy," he writes, "I could not bring myself to ask Sulzberger two questions: Why did he fire me, and if I had to go, why was there no other job for me at the Times?" I called up Sulzberger and asked if he cared to answer the questions. He said he did not, and we left it at that. The answer, I presume, is that Boyd had become too much a liability, too much a reminder of problems that the Times was tired of dealing with. Still, I think it would have been good for all concerned if the paper had, indeed, kept him around a bit longer and used him to help figure out what had gone so horribly wrong in so many ways—as opposed to just pushing him aside and starting anew.

Ellis Cose is also the author of Bone to Pick: Of Forgiveness, Reconciliation, Reparation, and Revenge and The Envy of the World: On Being a Black Man in America.