‘My Times in Black and White: Race and Power at the New York Times’ by Gerald M. Boyd

Gerald M. Boyd, who died of lung cancer nearly four years ago at 56, was one of his generation’s most accomplished journalists.

His work as a national political reporter, as an editor of judiciously nuanced serial reports on complex American social issues and his central role in shaping the New York Times’ magnificent coverage of both the first World Trade Center bombing and the Sept. 11 tragedy legitimately merit the overused adjective “distinguished.”

Sadly, though, Boyd is almost sure to be remembered first for having lost his job as the paper’s managing editor, when -- along with executive editor Howell Raines -- he was fired in the wake of the Jayson Blair and Rick Bragg scandals.

The consensus view is that Raines and Boyd reportedly lost the confidence of their publisher and newsroom not only because of those incidents, but also because the incidents appeared to grow out of a chaotic attempt to reshape the paper with a management style many there felt was self-aggrandizing bullying and marked by favoritism.

Based on this posthumously published memoir, “My Times in Black and White: Race and Power at the New York Times” -- which was shepherded into print by his widow, author and journalist Robin D. Stone -- it’s clear that Boyd went to his grave bitterly convinced that, while Raines had been a disastrous executive editor, his own leadership was, to a significant degree, rejected simply because it came from a black man. By Boyd’s account, he was betrayed, disappointed, misled or stabbed in the back by virtually everyone for whom and with whom he worked as an editor.

In making that case, Boyd renders harsh, lacerating judgments on the motives and character of many of the Times’ most senior editors and correspondents. It isn’t seemly to argue with a dead man, but many of those characterizations are so dramatically at odds with the individuals’ reputations and my own personal dealings with them that they’re more than difficult to credit and, therefore, won’t be repeated here. Suffice to say that if the Times of his tenure was indeed the seething stew of unchecked ego, hostile ambition and unexamined racial anxieties that he portrays, it’s a wonder it came out on a daily basis, let alone producing so much notable journalism.

‘Intimidating’ editor

Paradoxically, even when constructing a narrative to support his case, Boyd was too good a reporter to exclude details that contradicted it. Thus, he includes an account of being sent to a Colorado managerial seminar whose participants judged his supervisorial style to be arrogant and bullying. Because he had a fine reportorial eye, he also presents anecdotes that are unintentionally revealing. For example, while working through ideas for a series on racial attitudes with a group of reporters, people apparently were asked to share personal experiences that might suggest directions for the stories. One reporter told Boyd she found him “intimidating. . . . She saw an intense-looking black man. She found that vision intimidating.”

The comment haunted Boyd, and he writes in this book that he played it over and over in his mind. “When,” he wondered, “does a black editor become just an editor?”

Later, in a follow-up conversation, he writes that he returned to the comment and demanded of the reporter, “Was it my voice? My expressions? My skin tone? I asked if she felt that way about other black editors, singling out Dean Baquet, then the National editor, whose skin was lighter than mine.” The reporter said “she felt more comfortable around him. The words stung. . . . Was this how whites saw blacks in authority? Blacks in general?”

Note the quick pivot off the specific case -- about himself -- and on to the general one -- blacks -- and the distinction the reporter drew between dealing with the managing editor and the editor of the national desk.

Here, let me step outside a review’s normal parameters and into personal experience. I met Gerald Boyd four or five times and spent an evening and part of an afternoon with him during the Reagan administration, when this paper attempted to recruit him as an editorial writer. I found him intelligent, focused, intense, articulate, though a bit stiff, and utterly humorless.

Baquet, who went on to become first managing editor and then editor of this paper, was someone with whom I obviously worked more closely. Like Boyd, he’s one of those editors touched by genius when it comes to organizing coverage of breaking news. He’s also deeply empathetic, broadly cultured and at home in any company or situation. He’s from New Orleans and, frankly, could charm the chrome off a trailer hitch. He’s now back at the New York Times as Washington bureau chief and it’s fair to say that, wherever he’s worked, he left better and more warmly thought of than when he arrived.

If Boyd really believed that the reporter found Baquet less intimidating because of his skin tone, then he was dealing with a racial blind spot, but it may not have been the reporter’s.

The early years

A good bit of “My Times in Black and White” deals with Boyd’s life before the Times. He grew up poor, raised by his formidable grandmother in St. Louis, motherless and abandoned by an alcoholic father. It’s a remarkable, admirable up-by-his-bootstraps story.

Here too, though, the author has difficulty balancing the contrapuntal realities of racial resistance and racial progress whose simultaneity has characterized the last few decades. He benefited not only from the interest of sympathetic teachers but also from the friendship of the Jewish family that ran the local grocery store and not only gave him a job but also mentoring.

He was singled out for a full college scholarship to the University of Missouri’s top-flight journalism school that included summer employment at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and a reporter’s job there on graduation. At the Times, which had become painfully aware of how lily white and male its upper echelons were, he was put on a special fast-track to promotion by then-executive editor Max Frankel.

None of this is to say Boyd didn’t encounter all the predictable resentments and slights. Clearly, they took their toll, and we often underestimate the price paid by proud men or women whose lives are a series of firsts, as his was -- first black metropolitan editor, first black managing editor, etc.

Boyd, moreover, had -- by the account in this book, at least -- a rather Manichaean view of the world around him. The Times he inhabited was divided between his allies and his enemies, between friends and foes. Experience and world view somehow conjoined, congealed and soured.

“Throughout my life I have enjoyed both the blessing and the burden of being the first black this and the first black that,” Boyd said in a lecture he gave in St. Louis, and which the Times quoted in his obituary, “and like many minorities and women who succeed, I’ve often felt alone.”

That’s genuinely sad, because his accomplishments entitled him to company of the highest order.