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How Race Is Lived in America

Boyd with President Reagan at the White House, 1986; New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. walks with executive editor Raines, center, and managing editor Boyd on their way to a meeting with the paper's reporters and editors.  

Through the eighties, the upper newsroom echelons remained lily-white. Arthur Sulzberger Jr., then deputy publisher, conceded that his paper was “miserable to blacks.” It was hard to imagine anyone piercing the ivory bastion of the masthead.

Then Rosenthal was deposed, and the old-boy network began to quake.

In December 1986, two months after Max Frankel became the Times’ executive editor, he imposed an “unofficial little quota system” to shock the paper’s racial equilibrium. Though the quota delivered far less than the “critical mass” he’d envisioned, it triggered outrage in the newsroom. After three years of backlash, Frankel tried another tack. The fast-tracked development of even a few black executives, he reasoned, might resonate below. Boyd would be the pioneer, as much for his temperament—or the emotions he bottled up—as his talent. “I heard that he was a good, solid reporter,” Frankel said, “but more importantly that he had the kind of equanimity—to be candid about it—for white Establishment settings. He didn’t bear some of the anger and hostility that were visible in other people.”

In late 1990, Frankel called the correspondent to New York and told him—in so many words—that he would be the Times’ Jackie Robinson. Adapting a page from the Branch Rickey handbook, he warned Boyd about “the tough time” in store, “because a lot of people are going to be saying we’re doing this because of your race—and to a degree we are, and I think you can handle that.”

Indeed, Boyd was unfazed. “Gerald was eager to be a big player in this place, if not the biggest player,” said Soma Golden Behr, the national editor who’d been picked by Frankel to be the first woman to head a major news desk at the Times. “He believed that he was as good as anyone else, and better than most.”

He was 40 years old, and primed to climb.

Promoted to metro editor, Boyd found the learning curve steep: the big time, the big town, and the notorious Times bureaucracy, sharp-elbowed and byzantine. To keep his insecurities at bay, he drove himself harder.

He loved being in charge. As the Times’ metro report expanded to repel an incursion from Newsday, Boyd would swagger about with a wink and a wry smile, his high baritone prodding his young charges: “Each day is another opportunity for greatness!” His staff suspected that he’d been born bald and middle-aged; his new job fit that thickset gravitas, those Burberry suits and Hermès ties. Awkward with straight-on compliments, his needles could sting. “Enjoying your vacation?” he’d purr to a reporter who’d gone two days without a byline. Most took the barbs as intended, as a spur to do better. “In the main,” said Lelyveld, then the managing editor, “his staff trusted him a lot.”

On February 26, 1993, a bomb exploded underneath the World Trade Center—and Boyd had his moment. He loved big stories more than anything; the greater the chaos, the calmer he stood. He led that day in broad, sure strokes. With Boyd at the helm, the Times won its first Pulitzer Prize for local reporting in 26 years.

All in all, Frankel said, Boyd “wrote a very distinguished record” at metro, “some rough edges” notwithstanding. He wouldn’t get time to polish them; he was being hurried along. As Frankel neared retirement in August 1993, he burnished his legacy with the same-day promotions of Boyd and Behr to assistant managing editor. Boyd would be the first black journalist to reach the Times masthead.

In a private moment with Behr, Boyd proposed a “pact” to support one another, come what may. “We had sort of a kinship,” Behr reflected. “As a woman, I have some real passion for outsiders.” Still, she thought it “an oddball thing to say.” Or perhaps not so odd, from a man who’d need someone to watch his back.

Life on the masthead wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. In Joe Lelyveld’s decentralized newsroom, Boyd felt adrift and beleaguered. On one front massed the rivals who saw him cutting in line, color-coded for success; on the other, a press of minority reporters who were desperate for a rabbi—and if not Boyd, who? If anything, the editor seemed to be harder on black reporters. When, years later, Jayson Blair wrote that he’d watched Boyd “devour the careers of more blacks than he saved,” he spoke for a number of African-Americans in the newsroom. Boyd “was a proud black man,” Don Terry said. “He just didn’t feel that his job was to be the brother man.”

To protect himself, Boyd postured and teased, probing the people with fancier pedigrees. Were they comfortable with black men who outranked them? Did they see the man or just the color? (Boyd would never forget the day he was mistaken in the newsroom for Paul Delaney, who looked nothing like him.) “He’d zig and zag, keeping people off balance,” Behr said. “If you were below him in the pecking order, you wouldn’t like it.”