My Times in Black and White

The universal solvent known as the Internet isn’t the only thing eating away at the pillars of the mainstream media; so too is the rapidly spreading disdain for pretty much anything the official arbiters of newsworthiness these days have to say.

This is, for the most part, a real shame and a great loss to our culture. The so-called “democratization” of public discourse afforded by digitization is mostly a sham, creating instead a wilderness of mirrors in which hordes of uninformed and overconfident blowhards propagate the partial truths and flat-out lies of other blowhards in furtherance of their fanatically held prejudices.

Yet it has to be acknowledged that the mainstream media brought much of this on itself. To take only one example, I doubt that there has ever been a more overrated journalistic enterprise in America than the New York Times. Provincial in the way that only a New York-based cultural institution can be, smug, and transparent in its political prejudices, the paper version of the New York Times has about it lately the whiff of decay.

Certainly some of its writers, especially in the arts, are marvelous, but others — in the business and sports sections and most crucially in the national and international news sections -– are atrocious. Beginning in the period before the election of George W. Bush, the New York Times’ reporters and the editors who supported them perfected a nearly comical form of journalistic expression, in which they attempted simultaneously to appear blandly impartial while straining furiously — one could almost see the eyes bulging and neck veins popping — to persuade their already thoroughly persuaded readers that Bush and his supporters were certifiable cretins. It wasn’t preaching to the choir; it was more like shrieking to it.

You could hate Dubya and everything he stood for with a passion and still recognize that this was an abdication of journalistic responsibility, just as it was back in the ’30s, when the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Walter Duranty explained away Josef Stalin’s horrific rule for his credulous American readers.

The crimes of the New York Times haven’t come solely from the left. Judith Miller, for example, was given acres of space in the New York Times to spread misleading claims that WMDs had in fact been found in Iraq. Seen from the farther reaches of the left, for that matter, there’s plenty of other aspects of the New York Times’ coverage that could seem excessively bourgeois and Establishment-oriented. Finally, much of the New York Times’ mediocrity is apolitical, the product of an inbred culture and an arrogant belief in its own inviolability.

The late Gerald M. Boyd, the first black managing editor at the New York Times, was both a participant in and a victim of the newspaper’s inbred culture, and was a victim as well of one of the most serious challengers to the paper’s inviolability in many years, the infamous plagiarist and fabricator Jayson Blair.

In his memoir, My Times in Black and White: Race and Power at the New York Times, Boyd takes us through the high and low points of his journalistic career, which included, at its peak, the New York Times’ coverage of 9/11 and its wonderful and deeply moving series of profiles of the terrorist attack’s victims, “Portraits of Grief”. In 2002, under Boyd’s editorship, the New York Times garnered seven Pulitzer Prizes, “more than twice the number any newspaper had ever won in a single year.” Boyd had also led earlier coverage by the New York Times that resulted in three other Pulitzer prizes.

Yet too often, according to his memoir, Boyd’s skills as an editor were trumped by the ineradicable fact of his race. “Mostly,” Boyd recalls, “the Times suffered from ignorance, indifference, and arrogance, which played out at every level. I was often confused with other blacks on staff.” He also notes that “(m)ost of my colleagues were politically liberal and believed in racial equality. Yet many had never been in a position of having to take orders from a black person, especially one whom they did not know.

“In fact, few blacks were at the table when editors discussed important issues… There were no natural avenues to discuss issues, so most racial dialogue took place through angry memos or heated conversations that a few blacks risked having. Some of those who spoke out frequently were often seen as militant -– not exactly a career-enhancing label. In this highly charged atmosphere, I saw that I needed to tread carefully.”

Treading carefully is what Boyd excelled at. Born into poverty in St. Louis, to a mother who was in ill health and who died when he was only three, Boyd was determined to make it in the world. Although in college, he went through a relatively radical phase, the impression one gets from his story is that Boyd at all stages of his career, as he worked his way up from a copyboy position at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to the top of the New York Times, he suppressed a lot of anger and swallowed a lot of pride instead of exploding at the slights he experienced. Dutiful, stiff, respectful of authority, and reluctant to improvise, Boyd was the kind of person who all his life played by the rules.

Then, when being dutiful no longer sufficed, and when the rules of the games suddenly changed, Boyd didn’t know how to respond. Blair, whom he hardly knew, becomes unfairly associated with Boyd only because both were black, and when Blair’s transgressions tear the newsroom apart, Boyd and his mercurial white colleague Howell Raines take the fall. When Boyd was fired, he writes, “I was given hours to leave, with everything I had worked for over thirty years in tatters.”

The firing happens in the most public and humiliating manner possible, and hardly any of his colleagues, even the ones he considered his friends, offer him any support or succor. Not longer after that, he’s diagnosed with the cancer that will kill him before he could see this book in print.

Reading this book, and the touching afterword by his widow, Robin Stone, is a somewhat frustrating experience, because Boyd—clearly such a talented editor and manager otherwise—botches the Blair situation so badly, never definitively responding to the false charges that he had been Blair’s mentor, or that both of them had gained their positions unfairly, as a result of affirmative action.

The book is humorless, too, even though it’s clear, from the tributes from his former colleagues that open every chapter, that Boyd himself was full of good humor. There was the time, for example, when he spied a white colleague, William Schmidt, at a soul food restaurant and “booms out angrily, for the whole restaurant to hear: ‘What are you doing serving that white man in here?!?’” Schmidt freezes, “and so did everyone else at the restaurant,” but when Schmidt turns around, “There was Gerald, bent double at the waist and laughing so hard he was crying.”

What we get instead of this humor, or even the full-throated anger he must have felt, is painfully pedestrian writing, interwoven with bitterness about his professional fate and frustration about his personal life, at least until he discovers Robin. Here he is, for example, describing the neurotic denizens of the New York Times’ Washington bureau: “…they cultivated an environment of fear, distrust, and agendas. The twin gods, protecting one‘s turf and watching one‘s back… A friend or enemy could find his fortune enhanced or diminished by staff changes. Then the dominoes would fall, ushering in new bosses and alignments. It felt like a game of musical chairs: no one knew when the music would stop, but everyone was poised to grab a seat when it did.”

That’s at least three more clichés than any one paragraph should have to bear, plus an explanation of how musical chairs works that no one needs to be told.

Here he is describing an effort to keep him on board at the New York Times earlier in his career, when he didn’t get the managing editor position he was hoping for, but instead was offered the position of deputy managing editor of news: “I often wondered what path I might have taken had I left. But I buckled after a full-court press… (w)ith the new title came enhanced responsibilities, the ability to oversee my own projects, and more financial security, or what some refer to as ’golden handcuffs’ that keep you shackled to a job that is not the job you want.”

Really, is that what the mysterious Occidental phrase “golden handcuffs” means? It‘s good to finally know.

Stylistic weaknesses aside, this is still an informative book, especially in the way it illustrates that sometimes those who preach the loudest about diversity and tolerance are the least capable, when it comes down to it, of tolerating any diversity at all. It is a deeply sad book as well, as Boyd comes to realize just how nearly impossible it is, despite a lifetime of hard work, for his colleagues to see him as a human being and as a fellow journalist, instead of solely as a “black man”. This is a story with no redemption; Boyd dies with his bitterness intact.

Though Boyd doesn’t seem like the type to have read poetry, I’d like to think that he might have encountered a poem by William Butler Yeats called “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing”. Its resigned but brave spirit, I think, would have accorded with Boyd’s evident decency, and perhaps, offered him a bit of solace in his final days:

Now all the truth is out,

Be secret and take defeat

From any brazen throat,

For how can you compete,

Being honour bred, with one

Who, were it proved he lies,

Were neither shamed in his own

Nor in his neighbours’ eyes?

Bred to a harder thing

Than Triumph, turn away

And like a laughing string

Whereon mad fingers play

Amid a place of stone,

Be secret and exult,

Because of all things known

That is most difficult.

Photo (partial) courtesy of ©James Estrin / The New York Times