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Wednesday, March 10,2010

Black and white and red-faced all over

Editor Gerald Boyd broke down barriers, until scandal ended his career

by Bill Castanier

Talking with author/journalist Robin Stone, you get the sense her husband, former New York Times managing editor Gerald Boyd, would have savored the discussion his posthumously published memoir is generating about race.


Stone was recently on the Michigan State University campus as part of the School of Journalism’s centennial celebration and to promote Boyd’s book, “My Times In Black and White,” which has just been published. Stone is an MSU journalism graduate and has been an editor at The Oakland Press, The Detroit Free Press, The Boston Globe and the Times, where she met Boyd. She was also the founding editor of Essence magazine.


In his more than 20 years at the Times, Boyd oversaw 10 Pulitzer Prize-winning features and worked on some of the biggest stories of our lifetime, including 9/11. Boyd was a harddriving editor who came in early and stayed late. For 20 years the Times was his family.


But, as he points out in his memoir, he will be remembered mostly for his resignation in the wake of the uproar over the “Blair Affair.”


In his book, Boyd admits his arrogance. He writes how as the first African-American managing editor at the Times he was on track to be the executive editor.


“But I made a critical mistake,” he writes. “For a moment, I saw myself as invincible.”


As it turns out he was not.


Since beginning as a copyboy at the St. Louis Dispatch more than 40 years earlier, Boyd was looking forward to adding to his litany of firsts as an African-American journalist. His book details how he was once described as the Jackie Robinson of journalism¸ a description he had mixed feelings about, according to Stone.


A little history about Jayson Blair: In the late ’90s and early 2000s, Blair was, on the face of it, an ambitious young black reporter much like Boyd had been. He was noted for breaking the big story.


What Blair turned out to be was an inveterate liar, gossip and plagiarist. In 2003, after more than four years at the Times, Blair was discovered to not only have plagiarized pieces of major features, but also to have totally fabricated features altogether.


Blair was also black. And that factor more than any other doomed Boyd, according to his book, which makes the case it was guilt by association. Stone agrees.


“It was unfortunate,” she said. “(Race) was not a factor — but it was a presumption that made its way out anyway.”


As Stone pointed out, all the Times needed to do was check Blair’s background. He had lied about graduating from the University of Maryland. That simple act would have put an end to his actions, but instead it ended up being just another “black guy did it,” Stone said.


Although Stone can’t understand how Blair’s actions were ignored, she feels it was more of an organizational oversight.


“Journalism starts with a high level of trust,” Stone said. “You have to trust your reporter for bringing in the truth.”


That’s part of it, but what comes across most in Boyd’s inside look at the Times was a culture that would not allow the organization to accept responsibility for its actions or, in the Blair case, inaction. Following the “Blair Affair” the Times named a public editor outside of the newsroom to keep an eye on such transgressions.


Boyd notes Stone may have had her bullshit detector on before anyone else. When Boyd was considering an invitation list for a party at their home, Stone vetoed the addition of Blair, saying he was too much of a gossip.


Stone said Boyd was not a friend of Blair and in no way ever covered up for Blair’s indiscretions. Boyd denies any close association with Blair, other than often seeing him at work early in the morning and talking with him during smoke breaks.


Even so, Boyd, along with executive editor Howell Raines, would become one of the scapegoats in the ensuing scandal.


Boyd recounts how his leaving the Times may have been a blessing since he was able to spend more time with his family, especially his son, Zachary. Boyd would die only three years after leaving the Times. According to Stone, Boyd, who was an orphan, was able to develop a “better sense of family.”


Stone helped Boyd work through two drafts of the book, but “then he had me stop,” she said. “It was too painful. I found him another editor.”


She said that Boyd loved reporting and getting scoops. He was especially proud of a series the Times did in 2001 called “How Race is Lived in America,” an intense look at racial issues.


“His own story could’ve been part of the story,” she said.


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