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How Race Is Lived in America

To borrow one of Raines’s hickory-smoked metaphors, Boyd had chosen his ditch to die in.

There’s a striking photograph of Sulzberger, Raines, and Boyd from May 14, 2003. They are striding down the street to their “town hall” meeting at a Broadway theater, into a riotous vignette that Maureen Dowd would compare to Lord of the Flies—with Raines and Boyd both starring as Piggy. The two white men are smiling in sports coats and open-necked shirts, as though off to a Knicks game; Boyd is all sober dignity in his gray suit and tie. Back in the Washington bureau, Steven Holmes saw the picture and thought, That’s Gerald. He’s going to look proper—even if it’s his own execution.

The trio was about to face off with the Times staff over Jayson Blair, the young reporter who’d made up or stolen dozens of stories and triggered the most mortifying crisis in Times history. Blair had come to the paper through a minority-internship program, and so race was a part of his landscape. But there is scant evidence that Blair’s color drove the debacle, and certainly no basis for tying his abuses to affirmative action. As Slate’s Jack Shafer noted, “Thousands of minority programs seem to have produced only one Jayson Blair.”

That said, the question of race becomes critical in parsing the downfall of Gerald Boyd. As documented by the paper’s internal Siegal committee, Boyd was one of several ranking editors who contributed to “a series of management and operational breakdowns” that ultimately led to Blair’s implosion on the Times’ national desk. Considering all that fell on the managing editor’s plate, these were small sins of omission with colossal repercussions. Except for Blair’s pathology, they would be well forgotten.

The case against Boyd was planted by the Times itself, in the paper’s 14,000-word postmortem on May 11: “ ‘To say now that [Blair’s] promotion was about diversity … doesn’t begin to capture what was going on,’ said Mr. Boyd, who is himself African-American” (italics added). Going back to the forties, Times policy bars the use of racial identifiers unless they are “germane” to the story—but how was Boyd’s race germane here? According to a manager who was close to the situation, the answer lay in a newsroom atmosphere of “recriminations and suspicions,” as later noted by the Siegal committee: that Blair had been favored by Raines’s “star system” and also “from the fact that, like Blair, Gerald Boyd … is black.”

But suspicions are not quite facts. Amid the bloodlust that invaded the Times that spring, they might have sprung from a host of agendas, ranging from grudges against Boyd to a readiness to seize any weapon to hasten Raines’s exit. “They used this diversity thing to get rid of [Raines and Boyd], and that still lingers there,” said a former Timesman. “There’s an ugliness to it that nobody really wants to talk about.”

In his May 19 column for Newsweek, Seth Mnookin wrote, “Blair’s close mentoring relationship with Times managing editor Gerald Boyd, who is also black, was not explored in depth in the paper.” Blair had written Boyd’s bio-sketch for the Times’ internal newsletter, the columnist disclosed. Blair “frequently” joined Boyd for cigarette breaks in the smoking room. He bragged about “his close personal relationships” with Boyd and Raines. A week later, Mnookin elaborated: “The mentoring relationship made sense, people said—one of Boyd’s responsibilities was to work with young reporters and Boyd, like Blair, is African-American.” The conceit of a Boyd-Blair cabal was repeated and linked and downloaded until it congealed into conventional wisdom.

Spotting their chance, the people who’d doubted Boyd all along piled on in other venues, including this publication. A “well-placed Timesman” said that Raines had chosen his managing editor “totally” to please Sulzberger, and that Boyd was “not the best person for the job.” The conflation was complete: Boyd and Blair together, exhibits A and B of affirmative action run amok.

Like the newshound he was, Boyd traced the sources of these attacks—and was crushed to discover some he’d considered friends. He’d been dismayed by the racism unleashed by the Blair affair, the fish-eyed scrutiny trained on black reporters coast to coast. But to find that he was still an “affirmative-action baby” after all he’d achieved—that was decimating. Most hurtful of all, Boyd saw no one at the Times standing tall for him in public. He felt disgraced and forsaken.

I asked more than a dozen current and former Times people about Boyd’s personal relationship with Blair, and they all agreed: There was none. “I knew Gerald very closely from the time I got there [in 1994] to the time he left,” said Charles Blow, then the Times’ deputy design director. “I never heard him mention Jayson Blair’s name. I never saw Jayson at any of Gerald’s functions—nothing. I can never recall seeing them together.”