BOOK REVIEW: 'My Times' shows race relations have a long way to go

Monday, February 15, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 10:34 a.m. CST, Monday, February 15, 2010

Gerald Boyd was more than just another name on the New York Times masthead. As the first black managing editor of the Times, Boyd represents to many in journalism what President Obama supposedly represents to the presidency: evidence we live in a “post-racial” society. Boyd’s posthumous memoir "My Times in Black and White," however, reveals the story behind the front-page headlines. The truth, as Boyd sees it, is much more complicated.

"My Times" chronicles the rise and fall of a dedicated journalist through the lenses of race and power. Born to poverty in St. Louis, Boyd developed a passion for journalism in high school and won a scholarship to MU. He worked summers at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and quickly climbed through the ranks from cub reporter to Washington correspondent. Throughout his career in journalism, Boyd experienced the unique frustration of breaking new ground for minority journalists while watching other opportunities go to less-deserving white colleagues.

“Are you black first, or are you a journalist first?” he’s asked repeatedly, as if anyone is capable of ranking the complex layers of their own identity. Even as Boyd garners three Pulitzer Prizes at the New York Times, he consistently confronts barriers. Black reporters are considered authorities when it comes to “black” issues, but rarely consulted on anything else. For all the professed dedication to a diverse newsroom, the editorial ranks often resemble an old boys club.

Boyd’s story is compelling in its honesty and emotion — rarely do we get such an all-access pass into the lives of the people writing the news. Boyd doesn’t pull any punches in recounting his frustrations among the newspaper elite. He vents. He names names. His co-editor Jonathan Landman is depicted as an opportunistic rival, but Boyd has the candor to acknowledge his own professional mistakes as well. He shares the triumphs of leading the New York Times to win a record number of Pulitzers for its September 11 coverage, but also the turmoil at the top.

Operating under the mantle that “the only way to fight bad journalism is with good journalism,” Boyd recounts his fall from grace at the New York Times. In 2003, his world comes crashing down around him when the Jayson Blair scandal was revealed. Blair, a young black reporter, is revealed to have plagiarized and invented sources over a period of years at the New York Times. Blair’s name becomes synonymous with unethical journalism, and he takes a large chunk of the Times’ editorial credibility with him.

For some, Blair’s indiscretions bring up broader issues of affirmative action. Despite evidence that Boyd and Blair scarcely interacted, Boyd disproportionately takes the blame for not recognizing Blair’s ethical oversights. News outlets seize the opportunity to paint Boyd as Blair’s mentor, a misinterpretation at best and a racist assumption at worst. Boyd is forced to resign in 2003, a heartbreaking move for a man who built a 30-year career as a journalist. Ultimately, the media had turned against him.

Boyd died of cancer in 2006 at age 56. He left the legacy of a family man and a breaker of glass ceilings. Boyd’s widow, Robin D. Stone, will give two public presentations addressing the lessons of "My Times" during her visit to MU this week. Stone, a journalist, has edited for the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and Essence magazine. She is responsible for uniting two of "My Times"’ original drafts and bringing Boyd’s memoir to the public. “His story is an important story – it’s an American success story. I thought it was important to make sure it heard by as many people as possible,” Stone said.

Stone describes the audience for "My Times" as reaching beyond journalism to anyone involved in a corporate culture. Through all of his triumphs and struggles at the New York Times, Boyd stayed true to his ideals, showing a willingness to reach across racial lines and a dedication to “diversity of thought.” Stone says there are a lot of lessons that students and young professionals can take from Boyd’s story. “If you’re a woman, bring that to the job. If you’re an African-American, bring that to the job. Bring all of your interests and your cultural heritage to the job. Bring everything that makes you unique – your perspective, your history, your instincts and your culture,” she says.

"My Times In Black and White" can provoke mixed reactions. At times, it’s a frustrating reminder of how little progress the U.S. has made with regard to race relations. It’s also a love song to journalism, and the story of one man’s joys and successes climbing to the top. “It was obviously very important for (Boyd) to tell the truth as he saw it from his experience and perspective,” Stone said about the memoir. “He really wanted to let his story speak for itself.”

Caitlin Giddings is a first-year graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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