Gerald Boyd: A Man and ‘The Times’

In 2001, Gerald Boyd achieved a milestone when he became managing editor of the New York Times, the first African American to soar so high in the paper's 150-year history. Boyd, who had already distinguished himself as a White House reporter and newsroom manager, had spent much of his career clearing hurdles and was on track to become executive editor. His road to the summit of American journalism had been paved not only with noteworthy work, but also fierce loyalty to the men who mentored him onto the New York Times masthead.

When the paper under his leadership racked up a record number of Pulitzer Prizes, Boyd felt invincible. But in 2003 his world came crashing down when he, along with executive editor Howell Raines, were fired in the aftermath of the Jayson Blair and Rick Bragg scandals. Following a series of racially-charged news accounts, the Blair episode came to define Boyd more than the award-winning journalism he had so proudly presided over. In My Times in Black and White: Race and Power at The New York Times, Boyd posthumously has his say in an emotionally wrenching tale of love, loss and betrayal.

Boyd died of lung cancer in November 2006 at age 56, but his memoir was shepherded to publication by his widow Robin Stone, a journalist and author who penned the afterword. The book traces a black man's uncharted path from an impoverished childhood in St. Louis to an iconic American institution that both reflects and shapes the nation's racial attitudes. It also provides a fascinating look at an institution in crisis, and how race influences the perceptions, and ultimately the decisions, of even well-meaning newsmen and women.

First, full disclosure: I did not know Boyd personally, but, given his stature, it was difficult to elude his reach. While a reporter at New York Newsday I once appeared on a panel with him and know and have had friendly and professional relations with his wife while she worked as an editor at the Times and later Essence magazine. Like many African-American journalists, I was intrigued by his status at the Times and the chatter that inevitably accompanied his achievements.

Boyd was known for his guardedness, so the book, written with no-holds-barred candor, is a revelation. His insights as a man consumed with passion for journalism, fierce loyalty to the Times, and a desire for his mentors' approval were at times discomforting to read, all the more because one knows how the story ends. While he ultimately felt abandoned and even betrayed by many of his colleagues, especially his mentors, he manages to at times offer poignant praise, providing complex portraits of the people instrumental in shaping American journalism and perspectives over the past two decades.

Boyd recalls his upbringing in cramped, mice- and roach-infested quarters in St. Louis, where he was raised by a devoted grandmother after he and his siblings lost their mother during a life-ending pregnancy with a fourth child. Boyd's father was an alcoholic who deserted them when Boyd was 11. While a high school junior, Boyd participated in Upward Bound, an anti-poverty program launched by President Johnson. In editorials he wrote for the program newspaper, he found his voice and his life's passion. He graduated high school determined to someday be good enough to work at the Times.

In 1973, armed with a degree from the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Boyd began his ascent in daily journalism as a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which in 1978 promoted him to the Washington bureau covering the local delegation. After completing the prestigious Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, he was promoted to the White House bureau and was sent criss-crossing the globe with President Reagan. The high-profile assignment brought him national attention when his White House news conference exchange with Reagan was televised.

When the Times called, Boyd sacrificed his White House job to work as a Washington-based urban affairs reporter. His big break came within months, when he was given an assignment to cover Jesse Jackson during his historic 1984 bid for the Democratic Presidential nomination. Boyd garnered his first front-page byline in the Times deconstructing Jackson's surprisingly strong showing in Virginia. By the end of the election, Boyd was reassigned to the White House.

"It was not lost on me either that I was the first journalist of color to cover the beat for the Times," said Boyd. "But I did not feel as if my race had anything to do with me getting the post." Buoyed with pride, Boyd said he didn't just walk into daily White House briefings. "I swaggered."

Boyd constantly underlines the warping affects of race on perceptions and, ultimately, trust. He often wondered if white colleagues found him intimidating or unworthy, or if gestures were made, or not, because of his race. For his part, he wanted all to know that he put journalistic integrity above racial loyalty. While acknowledging that race had probably played a role in his campaign assignment, he said: "I did not feel beholden to Jackson, I had a job to do."

Recounting the firestorm that erupted after the black reporter Milton Coleman of the Washington Postdisclosed that Jesse Jackson, in private conversations with black reporters, had used the word "Hymie" to describe Jews, Boyd worried that his editor might think that he would have withheld the story out of racial allegiance.

"If I had had what Coleman had, I would have run with it, too," he insisted. "I could not help but wonder what my Times colleagues thought … [J]ust one incident like this could overshadow all my previous good work." His editor assured him that he knew where Boyd's loyalty lied.

At another point he lamented how he felt he was in a no-win situation in a newsroom where white colleagues linked his accomplishments to race rather than merit, while some black colleagues viewed him as an Uncle Tom or sell-out unless they benefitted from his largesse. "The truth is, I believe I encouraged and supported all good journalists who worked hard, regardless of race, ethnicity, or sexual persuasion," he wrote. "Anybody who wanted a free ride knew not to look to me for help."

As Boyd soaked in the culture of the Times, he became obsessed with what management thought of him. He constantly sought the advice and approval of top editors and even stayed married to his second wife longer than he wished because he believed it's what was expected. (He eventually divorced her and married his third wife, Robin Stone.).

His hard work and loyalty appeared to pay off. In 1990 he became Metropolitan editor and shored up local coverage, resulting in the paper's first Pulitzer for local reporting in more than two decades. He also played a role in that year's Pulitzer for feature writing awarded to Isabel Wilkerson, a black reporter who contributed to the 1993 "Children of the Shadows" series that Boyd conceived. In 1993 he was the first person of color on the masthead when he was named assistant managing editor.

"My rise at the paper was smooth and steady, and the view from the top was spectacular as the Times' managing editor," he wrote. "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; I was addicted to the paper and all it represented, cloaking myself in its power and prestige."

As managing editor he helped direct even more award-winning journalism. In 2002, the paper won seven Pulitzers, a record in a single year. But while he was driven by journalism, it was race that would ultimately define him. During the furor over Blair's serial transgressions, Boyd was erroneously and widely characterized as Blair's mentor and protector. Instead of being simply cast as a troubled man who had deceived his editors at every turn, Blair was seen as Boyd's protégé and an example of diversity gone awry. Lost in the clamor was the fact that despite their shared race, Boyd had little to do with his hiring or supervision.

The false assumption and shoddy reporting would stain Boyd's legacy and undermine his career-long efforts to be seen purely as a man committed to the highest ideals of journalism. Like a Shakespearean tragedy, Boyd, the ultimate Times man, found himself cast as a Race Man who could be conveniently sacrificed by a company scrambling to repair its tattered image. Many of the details of Boyd's interactions with colleagues will long be debated. However, his poignant story of a lonely pioneer caught in the crosshairs of race and history is likely to resonate from newsrooms to the White House.

 

Tags: african-american, ethnicity, gerald boyd, journalism, race, the new york times

    • Pamela Newkirk
    • Pamela Newkirk is professor of journalism at New York University and the author of Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media, which won the prestigious National Press Club Arthur Rouse Award for Media Criticism. She is also editor of Letters from Black America (Farrar, Straus & Giroux and Beacon Press), and A ...

    • Pamela Newkirk's full bio »