18 February 2011

KingCast Black History Month continues with New York Times' Gerald Boyd, memorialized in NYMagazine.

Gerald Boyd's high-school graduation photo.  

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 theTimes 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.

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