A year ago this month, nearly 400 people filled a hall at Harlem’s Schomburg Center to honor Gerald Boyd, the highest-ranking black man in the history of the New York Times, dead of lung cancer at 56. It was a factional throng; around the grief and fond anecdotes, the air crackled with contention. Three years earlier, the Times’ burly managing editor—Howell Raines’s handpicked No. 2—had been jettisoned in the wake of Jayson Blair, an addict who cast plausible fictions in the paper of record. Boyd’s career was wrecked, his reputation blighted. But his legacy, it turned out, would be made of more durable stuff.
The memorial reflected Boyd’s two worlds, conjoined: predominantly African-American, save for a large pocket of Times people. Among them were the publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., and all four living executive editors—the one who tapped Boyd to go where no minority journalist had gone before, the one who befriended him and broke his heart, the one who took him to the heights and then to disaster, the one who has the job Boyd thought could one day be his.
From the podium, the pallbearers drew a bead on those white titans of print journalism, seated captive for this frozen moment. Bernie Weinraub, Boyd’s partner at the White House in the eighties, assailed “the brutal weight” his friend had carried “to represent his race every single moment he walked into the paper.” George Curry, a big-shouldered comrade from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, denounced the Times obituary for “besmirching” Boyd by referencing Blair in its lead sentence. (In defense, Joe Lelyveld, a former executive editor, would observe a truism of his trade: The most recent news tends to float to the top.)
“I am here tonight to reclaim a friend,” Curry said. “I am here to restore his good name. I am here to set the record straight.” As his call found its cadence, the black chorus responded in collective grievance—over a man they’d seen used up and discarded by a smug, white institution. But in the Times section, there were winces and pursed lips. (“I was quite angry with the guy who decided to make a political stump speech,” said Max Frankel, Lelyveld’s predecessor—though the “honest feelings” Frankel added, were “good for white folks to hear.”) Here was the 500-pound irony in the room: that a man who’d aimed to bridge the great divide—to live and work color-blind—would now be mourned compartmentally.
He was one of us, the Times’ incumbent, Bill Keller, had intoned to his staff via e-mail, but that last pronoun seemed up for grabs. To whom did Boyd belong? To the paper whose cause he’d served and power he’d wielded for twenty years? To the community of black journalists, who’d claimed him as their paladin—or the waves of young reporters he’d terrorized and inspired? Or was he bound, at the end, to the few who remained by his side after he’d been banished from the place he loved too much?
Race, said Ginger Thompson, a Times reporter who worked with Boyd, “very much defined Gerald’s career. I think it defined a lot of how he felt about himself, how he felt about his rise at the Times, his potential future at the Times—race was very much a part of that.” But if Boyd’s blackness was the instrument for his rise, it was also the overwhelming factor in his plummet from grace. Despite his smarts and drive and unassailable integrity, race ran him to ground. His friends still feel the anger he’d rarely let himself express.
“Jayson Blair didn’t bring Gerald down,” said Don Terry, a former Times writer. “The New York Times brought Gerald down. Arthur Sulzberger punked out.” For Terry, and for many of those gathered last November, Boyd was scapegoated into ruin for Ascending While Black.
“I was not the black managing editor,” Boyd would say of the title he held for 21 triumphant, calamitous months. “I was the managing editor.” In the annals of good runs at the Times, he’d had one of the best. For a brief stretch, it seemed that he might be proved right—that he could beat the odds and flourish at the top.
Until he was proved wrong.
The formative theme of Gerald Boyd’s childhood, played out on the threadbare west side of St. Louis, was that he kept losing people. He was 3 years old when sickle-cell anemia stole his mother, eight months pregnant with a never-named fourth child; she’d be forever adored in the hazy space between memory and imagination. He was 11 when his father, a delivery-truck driver who drank too much, left their home for good. He was 13 when his baby sister was packed off to a relative in California, rarely to be seen again.
Gerald and his older brother joined two motherless cousins in the care of their widowed grandmother; they drifted a while before finding a three-bedroom flat on Romaine Place. Evie Waits Boyd was warm and devoted, but spread thin. Gerald would survive “by learning to rely on no one other than myself,” as he later wrote in an unpublished memoir. By high school, he was working 40 hours a week at a corner grocery. The shop’s owners—two Jewish brothers who’d hung on after the neighborhood changed—became his first mentors, the people he strived to please.
To Sheila Rule, his childhood neighbor and first wife, Boyd was “always seeking acceptance and love, in one way or another.” And so he’d swing from sureness to vulnerability, wariness to need—he was a riddle, Gerald Boyd, most of all to himself.
Because he came of age when he did, Boyd’s destiny would be bound up in the world of affirmative action. Consider: In 1968, the year he resolved to be a journalist, the Kerner Commission censured the nation’s newsrooms—then roughly 97 percent white—as “shockingly backward in seeking out, hiring, training, and promoting Negroes.” The media’s status quo wasn’t merely biased; it was methodically segregated. Without intercession, Boyd’s career might never have happened.
A few weeks before he finished high school, in the spring of 1969, Boyd was honored as the top minority student in the region by the Post-Dispatch. His reward: a full scholarship to the University of Missouri School of Journalism, plus a reporter’s job after graduation. It was there, at an overwhelmingly white college, that Boyd first displayed his dexterity in straddling two worlds. The most outspoken black militant on campus, he somehow won election as student-body vice-president. He was so mature and purposeful, so confident; he won people’s trust even when they disagreed.
Diploma in hand, Boyd put in sixteen-hour days for the Post-Dispatch, living for the scoop. That debut set the pattern for Boyd’s career: Once his color helped secure an opportunity, he’d run harder with it than anyone else.
While still in his mid-twenties, he instilled the same ethic in the minority high-school students he taught at a Saturday journalism boot camp, the first of its kind. Throughout his life, he would feel a special obligation to lift the prospects of young black people, to take others up with him—but only if they shared his commitment. As Ann Scales, later of the Boston Globe, recollected at Boyd’s memorial, “There was no room for excuses. No excuses for missing deadlines. No excuses because you happened to be born black and poor.” Boyd found no conflict between high standards and the grooming of young black reporters, between merit and diversity. They were integral parts of the same mission.
At 27, Boyd made it to the Post-Dispatch’s Washington bureau, the goal he’d carefully plotted. “He had a plan,” George Curry said. “He wanted to be editor of the New York Times.” At the time, there were perhaps four black news executives in the entire industry.
Five years later, he caught the eye of Bill Kovach, the Times’ fabled Washington bureau chief, who had one black reporter and wanted more. By Times standards, Boyd was a pedestrian writer. But as a classic “hard-news man,” he would not be outhustled. (Nor outdressed; if his suit felt tired, he’d race home midday to change.) After a strong performance in the 1984 presidential campaign, Boyd won the backing of deputy bureau chief Howell Raines and moved to the White House, the prestige beat.
As Boyd’s generation of young black men began to trickle into the Times, it became clear that Abe Rosenthal, the executive editor, had no idea what to do with them. He generally stuck them on the so-called urban-disintegration beat and let them languish there. Though the Times of the seventies was “trying hard,” said Ron Smothers, who left the company last summer after 35 years, the paper was “unable to see black reporters beyond being black … Race was the water we swam in.”
Minority journalists, then as now, were up against an all-white managerial tier that mentored people just like themselves: the original affirmative action. As black reporters stalled at the bottom rungs, the notion hardened that they belonged there. (Latin and Asian journalists weren’t even on Rosenthal’s radar.) “It’s the kind of stuff we called institutional racism,” Smothers said. “And that’s why affirmative action was needed—not because we needed the leg up, [but] because those guys needed to put a blindfold on and just do it on merit.”
Paul Delaney became the Times’ first black Washington correspondent, in 1969; he would make it to senior editor, but no higher. “There was an elitism at the Times,” he said, a “belief that there was no black as good as any of the white 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.”
Job interviews brought out his fearsome worst. Boyd would glare at the hapless prospect, prop his Bostonians on his desk, and growl, “What makes you think you deserve to be at the New York Times?” But once an offer was tendered, the gatekeeper softened. “Welcome,” he’d say, “to the family.” It was no throwaway line for Boyd, whose first marriage had broken out of youth and inexperience and whose second was failing, too. The Times filled in all his blanks. He’d never get over his Midwesterner’s awe of the paper—this “public trust,” the watchword that he adopted as his own. “He was always talking about the Times way,” said Greg Moore, one of several black editors in other cities whom Boyd took under his wing. “Gerald was a Timesman more than anything else.”
In 1997, Joe Lelyveld met Boyd for a dinner he’d been dreading. The two had a warm social relationship; Boyd was a frequent guest at the Lelyvelds’ country home near New Paltz. But now he was gunning for the managing editor’s job, and Lelyveld had to tell him that it was going elsewhere, to foreign editor Bill Keller. “I remember how wounded he was,” Lelyveld said. “I remember putting my hand on his arm and just sort of holding it.” At one point, as Boyd moved to bolt from the table, the executive editor said, “Stay, I need you.”
Though Boyd’s rise at the Times had been unusually rapid by the paper’s standards, it was still his first career setback, and he took it personally; he felt that he’d been led to understand that the job would be his. “I believed them, Sheila,” he told Rule. “I believed them.” In such moments one glimpsed the fragility beneath his armor, the poor black child from Romaine Place whose future hinged upon staying in favor.
Though Boyd still loved the Times after getting passed over, he wouldn’t trust it in quite the same way. He began talking about “balance” and the need to savor “life’s dance.” He had found a partner in Robin Stone, a younger editor he’d met while recruiting her to the paper. She became his third wife in 1996, and then there was Zachary, born that November.
But at the Times, now as deputy managing editor, Boyd was Lelyveld’s hammer of choice—a role some felt he played with too much relish by half. He frowned and furrowed over the desks, trashing stories that wouldn’t fly, and if egos got bruised, so be it. When friends warned that he ought to watch his back, he shrugged them off. He held everything in—a flare of temper now and then, but never too much. He couldn’t afford to lose control. He couldn’t afford to be an Angry Black Man.
He loosened up on the weekends, at the book-party buffets and Fourth of July barbecues that he and Stone threw at their home on the Upper East Side. The guests were mostly journalists and mostly black (although Boyd always had close white friends): the people with whom he could breathe. He’d lob a grenade onto the dinner table—You know black women can’t cook!—and sit back to enjoy the bang. Though not nearly so humorless as some believed, he held down his laughter like everything else. You could hear it swishing deep inside him, wanting to come out.
But the news never stopped, nor the pressures of the position. Boyd gained weight and chain-smoked Kool menthols. After a gym break near the office (barbells, no treadmills), he’d return to pause outside the loading docks: one more smoke before hurling back into the fray.
Behr called it “the silence of race,” the taboo that estranges us into misunderstanding. The effort to break that silence became text and subtext of the Times’ milestone series of 2000, “How Race Is Lived in America”—and the story, in a sense, of Boyd’s life.
The idea was simple yet visionary: to move beyond statistics and define race through relationships, in the main between one black person and one white, from cops and college quarterbacks to slaughterhouse workers. Though Behr was a full partner, and Lelyveld swung his full weight behind them, the series represented a special risk for a black editor at a white newspaper. But there were powerful enticements for Boyd, too, not least of them a chance to stare down his demons in the third person. The sheer scale of the project—more than two dozen editors and writers, most freed from their desks for a full year or more—bespoke Pulitzer ambition. Here was a springboard for Boyd’s stalled career, and a refuge from his masthead anomie.
Boyd became more than the co-editor of the project; he was a provocateur, psychoanalyst, father figure. He kept urging his reporters to search deep within themselves for their own racism. And those writers—without exception—found Boyd to be passionate, flexible, and boundlessly supportive. “He was incredibly kind,” Amy Harmon said. “I would feel so demoralized and go talk to him, and come out feeling renewed.” The team relied on Boyd’s empathy for their black characters, his ear for what rang true. “He knew where those folks came from,” Steven Holmes said. “He knew what it was like to climb the ladder. He just got it all.” Boyd found an alter ego in Tim Cobb, Harmon’s black Internet entrepreneur. He shared the stylish Cobb’s pique at being called “a black James Bond”; Boyd saw the damning otherness that the label implied. (“Why the black?” he exclaimed. “Always the black.”)
Yet Boyd, too, was trapped by the silence of race. At an awkward “group therapy” session at Behr’s home on the Upper West Side, he revealed that he’d worn a dashiki at college—and the sharing stopped there. (“How racism hurt Gerald was not a comfortable subject to Gerald,” Behr said.) And he was deflated when a female reporter blurted, “Gerald, you make me feel very white.”
After fourteen stories on page one, the team hit the lecture and talk-show circuit. Suddenly, Boyd had license to vent the frustrations he’d smothered inside his tight Windsor knot. Race was “the American nightmare,” he said. Black people gave it so much weight “that you can’t be yourself, you have to try to figure out how whites want you to be. And it doesn’t change based on how much success you have.”
In a roundtable published in the Times Magazine, he was eerily prescient: “Race is out there, time and time again. And if you’re not careful, it’s going to reach out and slap you and knock you down in some way, and you’ll never be able to get up from it.”
In 2001, after outflanking Bill Keller to succeed Lelyveld, Howell Raines picked Boyd to be his managing editor, a move questioned by many white people in the newsroom. Some saw it as a ploy to score points with the Times’ diversity-minded publisher. (According to Raines, they got it “totally backwards.” He says that Frankel told him that Sulzberger was “troubled” by his pick; the publisher worried that he’d be squeezed to name Boyd as Raines’s successor down the road.) Boyd felt the static in the air; he knew that some saw him “through the prism of race, and that vexed him,” Robin Stone said. But he’d gotten to West 43rd Street by shoving qualms to the side, putting one foot in front of the other, and looking fiercely dead ahead. Self-doubt could not worm into his mind. As Greg Moore, now the editor of the Denver Post, observed, “you can’t operate on [that] level if you have the least bit of doubt about your ability to belong.”
Raines broke the good news over dinner that July at The Four Seasons, and gave his new partner a memento: a Tiffany silver fish-head key ring. Interviewed by his own paper, Boyd said, “I hope tomorrow, when some kid of color picks up the New York Times and reads about the new managing editor, that kid will smile a little and maybe dream just a little bigger dream.”
It would be hard to overstate Boyd’s importance as a role model—dating back to the eighties, when minority journalists would rush to their TV sets to watch him grilling Ronald Reagan. His success at the Times was feted for its own sake, but also for the opening it might augur. Boyd understood his place in the chain. To Paul Delaney he wrote, “I know I got here by standing on the shoulders of giants like you and I will always be grateful. I only wish you could have gotten here first.”
Five days into his new job, September 11, 2001, Boyd was getting his hair cut when he heard about the first plane. Still in his barber’s smock, he dashed outside, beat Raines to work by 40 minutes, and took the logistical lead from there. Raines, who’d been seven floors removed as editorial-page editor, “didn’t know where the bathrooms were,” Behr said. It was Boyd who “really knew the city and the newsroom, and Howell relied on everything that Gerald brought to the table.”
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the Times flourished. But as the crisis faded, and Raines zeroed on what he saw as the newsroom’s “smug complacency,” Boyd was caught between an imperious boss and a staff on the edge of revolt. He responded in the spirit of martial law. “You didn’t want to get on his bad side, because it was hard to get off,” said a former Times correspondent who’d had cordial relations with Boyd. “He’d get his revenge.” Those who knew Boyd cut through his curtness to the gentler, more reasonable man within, but others got what Behr called “the quickie Gerald,” a persona that wasn’t pretty.
Boyd had long bent to older men at the Times, going back to Bill Kovach. His deference ran deeper than loyalty, to the orphan’s eagerness to find a father. Boyd kept insisting that he wrestled Raines in private and had the scars to show for it. Behr wasn’t convinced: “I didn’t see the evidence, and I knew what going up against Howell was like—it was horrible.” She sighed. “Gerald was so damn faithful to that relationship.”
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.”
Looked at coolly, the particulars cited by Mnookin et al. were proof only of Blair’s compulsive ass-kissing. Macarena Hernandez was in Blair’s internship class and later, from the San Antonio Express-News, blew the whistle on his plagiarism. One evening in the Times newsroom, she said, she saw Boyd approach Blair, “and whatever Jayson was saying, I could see that Gerald wasn’t having any of it.” She could read Boyd’s body language: Don’t play me.
The portrayal of Gerald Boyd as Blair’s godfather, in sum, was a crude case of racial profiling. In its virulence and indignation, it reprised the old fury over Max Frankel’s aborted quota—the lurking conviction that black people didn’t belong at the Times, and surely not so close to the throne.
Perhaps the last word on this subject belongs to the one who’d know best, if we care to believe him. In an interview with the New York Observer in May 2003, Blair said he considered the managing editor an “antagonist” who attempted to block his progress at the Times. “To suggest he was my mentor is not a fair characterization,” Blair continued. “It’s an assumption based on race that’s silly. And I don’t like him! How did Gerald become my mentor?”
Toward the end, as Raines and Boyd twisted slowly, Sulzberger seemed to sink deep into his bunker, keeping his own counsel. On June 4, the publisher called in his designated change agent and sacked him, adding that he’d be “asking Gerald to leave as well because we were a team,” Raines said.
Did he challenge the decision to end Boyd’s career at the Times? “I didn’t fire Gerald,” Raines said firmly. “Arthur Sulzberger did. And my reading—and I’ve known Arthur for a long time—was that his mind was made up.”
While most everyone had figured that Raines was gone, Boyd sparked a gasp when he took the microphone in the newsroom the next morning. He looked teary, untethered. He was stepping down “with no bitterness or rancor,” he said. He extolled the Times as “the world’s greatest newspaper, no matter who leads it.”
He was 52 years old, in the prime of his executive life.
Later that day, Boyd told Zachary that he was leaving the Times to do something else. The 6-year-old burst into tears. “How could you leave?” he wailed. “The Times is a public trust!”
As the Times steadied under interim chief Joe Lelyveld, Boyd’s firing remained controversial. Deborah Sontag, one of his old metro reporters, suggested on CNN that a newsroom straw poll would show “an overwhelming majority” in favor of keeping him at the paper, if not as managing editor. Whatever Boyd’s flaws, he was perceived, Todd Purdum said, as “this kind of hopeless, collateral victim of it all.” Some saw little practical distinction between Boyd and assistant managing editor Andy Rosenthal, son of Abe and the third leg of Raines’s abrasive “troika.” But when push came to exile, Rosenthal found the softest of landings, as deputy editor of the editorial page, while Boyd was cast out.
Sulzberger certainly had options. He might have moved Boyd to the business side or simply granted a leave until the fallout settled. Although some doubt that Boyd would have taken a demotion, Stone believes her husband might have stayed on, even outside the newsroom for a time, because he “loved being a Timesman so much.” But he never had the choice.
Behr, among many others, has strong sentiments on this point: “I think we should have had the grace to keep him in some way. Enough people had seen the truth of Gerald, and the sweetness and compassion and vision. He made mistakes, but a lot of people make mistakes, and they do fine afterward.”
“We really whacked him,” Behr said. “We did, we whacked him.”
In July 2003, as Lelyveld stepped down again to make way for Keller, the company had another chance. Lelyveld advised his protégé that he “could do a lot worse” than Boyd as his next Washington bureau chief. The job played to Boyd’s strengths; others had similar ideas. But again, nothing happened.
Left with no comment from Sulzberger, we can only speculate as to why Boyd could not be rehabilitated. We know that the mocking coverage of the Blair scandal unsettled the Times board and the Sulzberger family. We know that the publisher had led the charge “to get our white male house in order” as he once put it—and so was all the more sensitive to charges of political correctness. One thesis making the rounds was that Sulzberger “couldn’t kill the white guy and save the black guy.”
The American redemption saga belongs, by and large, to white people; there are fewer second acts for the rest. In his crash, Boyd had restored our corrosive national myth, as noted by Times columnist Bob Herbert, that “there is something inherently wrong with blacks.”
At home on Lexington Avenue, Boyd grieved. In one swoop he’d lost his job, his social set, the very rhythm of his day. He had to reinvent himself and had no idea where to begin. “The Times was like family to him,” said Bernie Weinraub, one of Boyd’s dearest friends. “And when the family betrayed him, he was so shattered and depressed. He couldn’t get over it.”
For a time, Boyd lunched with friends from the paper, but then he stopped returning calls. He walled himself off. At a strained dinner with Soma Behr, as she reviewed the mistakes she thought he’d made, Boyd finally gave way and blurted, “What do you expect from a poor black kid from St. Louis? Who do you expect me to trust?” There was naked hurt in his combustion, and also a rage that he’d checked for a long, long time. According to Tom Morgan, Boyd’s old college classmate, he was “angry at how he was let go at the Times—very angry, and that anger persisted to the end.” But in public, Boyd would remain the loyal Timesman. That summer, when the National Association of Black Journalists received him like a wounded gladiator (“Boyd! Boyd!”), he spoke of how he owed “a lot to the Times … including the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr.”
Boyd had known the life of work since he was a 7-year-old paperboy, and he found things to do: a short-lived syndicated column; a case-study project for Columbia; a lucrative consulting deal with a Canadian media chain, CanWest. He tackled his memoir and read his six papers each morning and took his son to the zoo. Still, Boyd ached for what he’d lost. As Michael Oreskes, Boyd’s old metro deputy, said, “a newsroom gave him life, and he gave it life.” But over the 32 months between his leaving the Times and the diagnosis of his illness, Boyd received not one offer from a major newspaper. He came close several times, according to Michael Williams, who hired him at CanWest. “He said, ‘I get all the way up to the last interview, and somebody calls my friends back east and suddenly the offer’s not on the table anymore.’ ”
In the spring of 2004, the Atlantic Monthly published Howell Raines’s “My Times,” a 21,000-word you-a culpa, much of it a revisionist history that hung Boyd out to dry. Raines claimed that his No. 2 was privy to critical forewarnings about Blair, and that Boyd had dropped the ball. Had Raines “been in the bureaucratic loop on the memo,” he wrote, “the Jayson Blair story would have ended there.”
Translation: Gerald was my black guy and he didn’t save me from this black kid and it must have been his fault.
I asked Robin Stone if Raines and her husband had been friends. She paused a moment, and then: “I felt they thought they had a friendship.”
Life atop the New York Times, Howell Raines was explaining, “is a multidimensional chess game. There are alliances, but no enduring loyalties.”
At 64, Raines is a compact, craggy, pink-tinted man, a tad fleshy but fit. He lives on three acres in eastern Pennsylvania, where he writes fiction for two hours each morning and runs his pair of short-haired pointers. He seems content with rural life; he is The Man Who Has Moved On.
“I respect whatever anger Gerald had,” Raines said during a recent visit to New York. “When a group of people working together are interrupted by a sociopathic act, relationships are damaged.” Raines played phone tag with Boyd early in 2004, just before the Atlantic piece came out, “and I never heard from Gerald again, and I felt no desire to make him feel uncomfortable.” He has no compunctions about anything he wrote. “I got in this business to tell the truth,” he says.
Although Raines shuns regret as a matter of principle, he admits to one where Boyd is concerned: “I’m sad that Gerald is dead, in the sense that it was a noble, interesting American life. But I’m also sorry that we didn’t get the chance to talk it out … The last time I saw him was the day we left the newsroom.”
For many months after leaving the Times, Boyd wrestled with insomnia and second guesses. Jayson Blair was the kind of operator he could smell a mile away. Yes, he’d wanted the young man to succeed—he’d wanted all the young writers to succeed, and the Times was malnourished for black ones. But he wasn’t blind to Blair’s weaknesses—the sloppiness, the glib arrogance, the two stints in rehab. So why hadn’t he caught him in time?
As Boyd worked through his memoir, he began to understand. His blind spot with Blair had less to do with color or carelessness than with something rooted in his earliest years.
“I always had a hard time recognizing my shortcomings,” he wrote, “especially as others saw them. More often that not, my pride got in the way. The reaction was instilled in me from childhood, when I came to believe that there was no room for failure. My life had not been a quest for perfection, but an exercise in survival. And mistakes of any kind put that mission at risk.”
In terror of being wrong, Boyd could not admit that Blair was poison, or that Raines had flown beyond saving, or that he himself was squandering precious goodwill. In eschewing course corrections, he’d helped run his career off a cliff.
In February 2006, at his son’s winter baseball clinic, Boyd had a seizure. Lung cancer sneaks up on people, and the tumors had already traveled to his head. He withdrew, telling almost no one; he saw pity as the final indignity.
Boyd died at home on Thanksgiving Day, his family at his side, in a final private moment before the media recycled his rise and fall. He would leave it to others to protest an AP obituary that ran on CNN.com:
“Blair is survived by his wife and 10-year-old son, Zachary.”
there is no one like Gerald Boyd today at the New York Times. In March, nearly four years after Boyd was fired, the paper reintegrated its masthead with Dean Baquet, who returned from the shipwrecked Los Angeles Times to become Washington bureau chief. A Columbia grad, Baquet is the paper’s Tiger Woods: prodigiously talented, silken smooth, ambiguously ethnic (a Creole from New Orleans), and assiduously aloof from any struggle around race or equal opportunity.
Like Boyd in his day, Baquet is alone near the top, with no one on deck. The next-ranking minority at the paper is science editor Laura Chang; there are no black or Latino department heads or deputies in the newsroom. According to a former member of the Times’ diversity council (which termed the company “at risk” in an internal report released last year), the Blair scandal was “disastrous to the paper’s efforts to diversify its management ranks.”
Boyd had talent and heart and a fire in his belly, but he broke through only after Max Frankel took his leap of faith. Few at the Times can visualize Keller doing the same. While he declined to be interviewed for this story, Keller sent an e-mail that framed his concept for “diversity hires”—one that “includes, importantly, the experience of living as a racial or cultural minority,” but also “an evangelical Christian or a Marine Corps veteran.” But this take on affirmative action—a dilution of the primacy of race—leads minority journalists to despair for their future.
“It’s a really small funnel for everybody,” said Steven Holmes, now an editor at the Washington Post. “But it’s tougher conceptually for black folks because you see so few black people out on the other side. You’ve got to fight the cynicism; you’ve got to fight it all the time. It’s exhausting.”
Above all, Boyd represented possibility. He was the breathing proof of how far skill and tenacity could take someone who’d started with nothing. At the Schomburg memorial, a young reporter named Anahad O’Connor spoke of passing the page-one room as it emptied after the morning meeting, “and at the crest of this wave of important and brilliant editors, there was Gerald Boyd, this cool, graceful, and dignified black man.”
“It was Gerald’s joy to be a pioneer, and his burden,” said Soma Behr. “That’s the way it is when you’re out front in a historic moment. He carried the banner; I think he carried it pretty gracefully.”
“I loved Gerald,” Don Terry said. “I loved the idea of Gerald Boyd and the reality of Gerald Boyd. When he died, I wept at my dining-room table.”