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A Bad Morning at The New York Times

Mary Altaffer/AP Images
Gerald Boyd, the managing editor of The New York Times, and Howell Raines, the executive editor, on their way to a meeting about the Jayson Blair scandal, New York City, May 14, 2003

Gerald Boyd was a classic specimen of the self-made man. Born poor, he worked and studied his way up out of poverty under the guidance of his widowed grandmother. Childhood was work and study, study and work, and though they do not always guarantee success, for Gerald Boyd they did just what movies, books, and professional moralizers said they would do, probably because his widowed grandmother contributed a lot of wisdom, love, and iron to the self-making; and in his early fifties Gerald Boyd became managing editor of The New York Times. This was the second most important job in the newsroom of one of the world’s better newspapers. He was the first black ever to reach such a dazzling position in the Times hierarchy, and the gaudiest job of all—the executive editorship—seemed within his reach almost until the very moment he was fired.

The firing occurred in the spring of 2003 in a bizarre seizure of office politics, and, as such things will, it left Boyd anything but well disposed toward his former employer and colleagues. He has written a good book filled with ill feeling toward the Times, many of its editors, and a variety of colleagues who turned against him under pressure or simply because they wanted him to fail and be damned. Written during the three years between his firing and his death from cancer in 2006, the book is now published posthumously with the help of his wife, Robin Stone.

Lovers of newspaper gossip will find it delightfully indiscreet about self-serving treacheries hatched in the newsroom by people simultaneously engaged in high-minded pursuit of all the news that’s fit to print. Times folk, especially of the management class, will not be delighted by his account of their awkward struggle with the race problem or Boyd’s suggestion that bigotry was one of the causes of his downfall.

There were other causes, however, and when all are combined, they present a picture of a runaway newsroom that left the paper’s top editorial caste—and even its owners—suddenly powerless to control events. In the plainest possible terms, what happened in the newsroom was a successful workers’ uprising against the bosses, in which the workers won and the bosses were humiliated.

What may strike the reader as oddest of all about the several curiosities of this rebellion is that it had almost nothing to do with the paper’s editorial policy or its news coverage. When it was over, the Times ‘s news management had changed hands, but the paper went right on being the same New York Times it had been before. What had happened was not a revolution of ideas, but only a great gale of office politics about matters of negligible interest and no conceivable concern to inhabitants of the world outside the Times building.

It is mildly surprising, to be sure, to find that the Times, so famous as a bulwark of liberalism, was still bogged down with backwater racial passions. These made Boyd a central figure in the uprising since one cause of the newsroom’s epic discontent was the muted displeasure some white employees felt toward the paper’s “diversity” program. As a black giving orders in the newsroom, Boyd was the human manifestation of “diversity,” hence a vulnerable figure once rebellion required a few executions.

The Times had been grappling with its race problem since the 1980s when Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., not yet the publisher but preparing to be, started talking about his desire for “diversity,” a euphemism for affirmative action in hiring and promotions. Whether the Times newsroom was a more exclusive white male enclave than that of most other metropolitan dailies is doubtful, but its prominence made it a natural target for blacks, gays, and women hungry for a crack at high-end journalism, and Sulzberger’s support for “diversity” was an attempt to bring the paper into the modern social order.

Boyd was recruited for a management position in the 1980s by Max Frankel, then executive editor. By that time, Boyd had already established himself as a top-of-the-line reporter during an exemplary career with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Times ‘s Washington bureau. Frankel told him that the Times “severely lacked minorities to promote to management,” that it was hard to find “suitable candidates,” that increased “diversity” was not just one of his own priorities but one of Sulzberger’s too, and that Boyd’s “help toward the effort would mean a lot.”

The message did not require a decoder: thanks to the paper’s “diversity” policy, Boyd was being offered a chance to climb the executive ladder. He did not need much persuasion to abandon the reporter’s life and join the executive chase for glory. He acknowledges that his race gave him an advantage in the incessant bureaucratic struggles for advancement that afflict the Times newsroom, but declines to display any bogus humility about it. He is obviously aware that a generation earlier his race would have made it hard to get any Times job more elegant than slicing salami in the cafeteria.

The Times newsroom, which plays such an important role in Boyd’s story, was a big and highly talented bureaucracy principally made up of reporters, editors, photographers, and technicians skilled in the printing and electronic arts. The network of presiding editors, deputy editors, and assistant editors was complex and filled with people of high ambition and dangerous cunning. Each of the paper’s departments, sections, and so-called “desks” had an editor, sometimes a deputy editor, and a varying number of assistant editors. All these, in turn, were overseen by perhaps a half-dozen assistant managing editors, who were a rank below the managing editor, who reported to the grand editor of all editors, who bore the title of executive editor.

This grandee’s only superior was the publisher. When Times people spoke of the publisher, they pronounced the word with a capital P. His was the name of the family that had controlled the paper since the death of Adolph S. Ochs in 1935, when control passed to his daughter Iphigene, the wife of Arthur Hays Sulzberger. In Boyd’s time the publisher was a great-grandson of Adolph Ochs and bore the name Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. His training for the job had included study at the Harvard Business School and a tour in the Washington bureau.

Boyd’s newsroom was the home office of a journalistic elite class—college-educated, the sort of people who could chat comfortably with Supreme Court justices, Wall Street finaglers, prime ministers, opera singers, archbishops, sheikhs, crooks, cops, grave robbers, and even an occasional scientist. Born in the age of American mastery and comfort that followed World War II, they had large ideals and small experience of hardship or need, and, being quite a bit spoiled, they expected to be listened to with more respect than was accorded the working-stiff hotshots who populated newsrooms in the pre-Kennedy years.

The Sulzbergers were inclined to respect the newsroom. They practiced journalism obedient to the founding philosophy of Adolph Ochs, which held that success in the newspaper business depended on providing more thorough news reporting than the competition, even when thorough reporting threatened to reduce profits. The newsroom was the jewel of the Times corporation, a costly and precious asset to be cherished and fretted over. This explains why it was able to exert such force in the spring uprising of 2003.

The newsroom Boyd inherited was, he judged, a fair sample of white upper-middle-class America, mostly liberal on social issues and quick to endorse racial equality in principle. In practice, however, he found many slow to abandon the uptown white’s view that affirmative action was an unjust imposition on the innocent progeny of an older generation’s oppressing classes. Though the newsroom discreetly supported the publisher’s “diversity” program, he was quickly made to realize that many privately detested it. They seemed angry because it “not only opened a door for me but also gave me an unfair edge over the competition in climbing higher,” and he adds, “Perhaps they had a point.”

Moving to the New York office as a junior executive after eight years of reporting in Washington, Boyd was startled to discover a “blatant racial tension” in the newsroom. He sensed a hostility expressed in the form of passive aggression. “No one ever challenged my authority outright, but I had to repeat my orders frequently and then double back to make sure they were followed.”

He found “ignorance, indifference, and arrogance, which played out on every level.” There was an atmosphere that left blacks feeling they had to demonstrate that they were good enough to work there. There seemed to be an abiding conviction that whatever a black did could always be done even better by a white. High in the management Boyd found a white executive astonished that a black could write competently. On the day the Times hired him, the newsroom’s administrative officer greeted him with praise for samples he had submitted of his work at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

I really enjoyed your clips—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.

Despite all this, Boyd seems to have been good at his job. He moved steadily toward the top of the newsroom bureaucracy and, along the way, worked on projects that earned the Times ten Pulitzer Prizes:

My rise at the paper was smooth and steady, and the view from the top was spectacular: as the Times‘ managing editor, second in command, I witnessed and shaped history. I reveled in the paper’s legend, guarded its secrets, learned to analyze and strategize in the tradition of its best editors. Second only to my family, the Times defined me.

As the first black managing editor in the Times’s long history, he writes, “I knew I was on track for the top job of executive editor—if I played my cards right.” Then, he writes, “calamity unfolded with a surprising fury.”

Calamity’s agent was Jayson Blair, a young black reporter whose mind was addled by cocaine, whiskey, and private despairs. Blair had worked at the Times off and on for five years. Beginning as an intern hired under the “diversity” policy, he was moved up to reporting on relatively modest stories and assisting coverage of bigger stories that required team reporting. Unnoticed by a variety of newsroom authorities who were paid to notice such things, Blair had been engaged in unethical practices that are loathsome to all sensible journalists and justify immediate firing at the Times. The most serious of these were plagiarizing the stories of other reporters— basically common theft—and submitting as news stories pure fictions about events he had not witnessed.

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