Excerpt from My Times in Black and White: Race and Power at the New York Times
Excerpt from My Times in Black and White: Race and Power at the New York Times
© 2010. All rights reserved.
“The publisher wants to see you at six.”
My assistant, Christine Moore, reminded me of an appointment with Arthur Sulzberger Jr. as I passed her in the newsroom. I was on my way to the desks of section editors to mention stories I thought should get more attention from the New York Times. Some had already appeared in rival papers like the Washington Post and USA Today, putting the Times in the unenviable position of playing catchup. Other stories were follow-ups or new ideas to pursue.
Meddling. This was one of my primary responsibilities as managing editor. While the publisher buys the car, and the executive editor sets the course, the managing editor does the driving. Twenty years after joining the paper, I was second-in-command in the newsroom, relishing my turn at the wheel. This ride was a classic—thoughtfully crafted, meticulously preserved, updated only on occasion and only after careful consideration of timing, economics, and what the market would bear. I took my job seriously. I paced the newsroom, determined to inspire, encourage, and debate, and to focus on anything other than the saga unfolding inside the newspaper.
It was June 4, 2003, one of those sluggish days in late spring when the work gets done simply because it has to. No mega event was driving the news cycle, no economic crisis, no congressional scandal, no sensational trial to captivate or titillate the public. Those are the fly times, when the work of journalists is actually far more simple and straightforward than on a slow news day. When news happens, the newsroom operates as if on automatic pilot. Everyone worth his or her salt knows the questions to ask, the angles to cover, the stories that must be told.
That was not the case on June 4. A leisurely air permeated the newsroom. Some reporters and editors were using the time to engage in other matters, like planning weekend escapes from Manhattan or researching destinations for summer vacations. That time of year, just after Memorial Day, always changed the rhythm on West Forty-third, and the change often lasted straight through Labor Day. Men left their ties hanging in closets back at home, and barring major news, everyone shifted to a lower gear.
The shift was calming, familiar. And I needed that badly.
Since Jayson Blair’s serial fabrications were exposed on April 28, top executives at the Times had been consumed by problems that seemingly defied solution. Our newspaper, the crown jewel of journalism, was under attack both inside and out. Blair’s actions not only shattered the paper’s trust with its readers but also ignited a newsroom rebellion over everything from favoritism to arrogance to diversity. Like me,Blair is black. He was twenty-seven years old, a reporter whose zeal and skill at staying on the right side of some in the newsroom masked what he later described as a history of mental illness.
This was not the first time the Times had come under heavy criticism, but this time the criticism seemed orchestrated and personal. With an unprecedented front-page article published on May 11, the focus of analysis shifted from assessing the damage from Blair’s plagiarism and inaccuracies to an indictment of the top managers of the Times. It did not help that Sulzberger described the situation as a “huge black eye.” I was fighting two wars at once: one against outsiders who wanted to see the Times knocked down a few pegs and the other against insiders seeking blood and revenge.
Almost daily the paper’s credibility was pummeled, from the towers of academia to news talk shows, from emboldened Web bloggers to even the likes of late-night comedians David Letterman and Jay Leno. Inside, the staff was clearly divided. The most vociferous critics openly challenged my boss, executive editor Howell Raines, and me by complaining on the record to practically any news outlet that inquired. Internal, supposedly confidential conversations and memos ended up quoted verbatim on media Web sites and in rival newspaper columns. Morale was in free fall.
Senior executives gathered for crisis-management meetings as many as four times a day. We strategized, argued, and eventually cooked up plans that were little match for the dozens of daily battles. We were taxed. We were weak. We were outmaneuvered. I would look around the table wondering whom I could trust. Former Times colleagues, who still took the paper’s welfare to heart, weighed in with calls and e-mails, and their messages were anything but reassuring. The Times seemed a mess, they told anyone who would listen.
I rode out this storm feeling more and more isolated, deeper in the muck, far from safe shores. In the office, I walked the newsroom floor struggling against emotional and physical fatigue. I had lost what had come to define me—my poker face. Instead, I was vulnerable, and I just knew that anybody who looked could see my despair. When I could not lose myself in journalism, talking up the editors, I would try to distract myself from the chaos with routine management tasks. I approved the appointment of a new deputy editor for the Arts and Leisure section and sent flowers to a talented Sports columnist who was recovering from surgery. I was briefed about the latest developments in the Times’ purchase of the Paris-based International Herald Tribune. And I plotted a way to stop a recently hired writer from returning to his old job at Newsday, the Long Island–based newspaper.
I sorted through invitations asking me to give a speech or make an appearance. The Council for Opportunity in Education, a group of education professionals devoted to helping low-income students move from high school to college, wanted me to address its annual convention in a few weeks.
“Your accomplishments in the media are well known and could be inspirational to millions of low-income, disadvantaged students,” the organization wrote. It noted that I had first become interested in journalism while attending an Upward Bound program in St. Louis. I smiled at the reference to that highlight of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. It had allowed me and thousands of other high school students to spend summers on college campuses. My summer, in 1968, opened my eyes to the possibility of a career in newspapers. I would later attend the University of Missouri on a four-year journalism scholarship, work as a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, cover the White House for the New York Times, and then rise to senior management.
Now my rags-to-riches story was being rewritten. And my paper was fighting for its reputation. I declined the invitation, knowing my attention would be better spent on the home front.
Fulfilling managerial duties gave me no relief at all. The image I had worked so hard to cultivate was being recast wholesale, viciously; I was being carved up, one piece at a time. It was no surprise when my position, which I had held since September 6, 2001, was a target of sniping, but the latest accounts lacked context and balance. Many were flat-out wrong. Reports portrayed me as weak and incompetent, not a man whose vision, passion, and talent helped produce superior journalism that earned the Times ten of its eighty-nine Pulitzers.
Even more striking were those reports that presented me as a henchman to Howell Raines, the executive editor. It was as if I had no identity other than that of a nondescript black man holding the coat of my larger-than-life white boss. So much had been written trying to lay blame for the scandal—and much of that had been written so hastily— that many reporters abandoned one of the basic tenets of journalism and built their stories upon hearsay and previously reported lies instead of tracking down the truth themselves. The Times did not help matters by asking executives not to speak to the media and instead to funnel all inquiries through an overwhelmed PR department. I had the sick feeling that, from the outside, Times management looked like Keystone Cops, stumbling, bumbling, colliding into one another. …
As I headed to the newsroom lobby to catch an elevator for my meeting with Sulzberger, I thought back to Christine’s announcement earlier that day. The publisher wants to see you at six. Christine, a dignified and stylish black woman who had worked for me for more than a decade, knew my every mood. The look on her face told me she could tell I was stressed and stretched.
And curious: six o’clock is a strange time to pull a top editor away for a meeting. For editors and many reporters, 6:00 p.m. is the witching hour. With a first-edition deadline only three hours away, writers are wrapping up stories, editors are anxious to get a first read to raise questions and fine tune, and photo and design teams are selecting their final images, finishing layouts, refining maps and graphics. At six, the work of putting out the next day’s paper is in high gear. So while Sulzberger’s request was odd, I attached no significance to it since we had been meeting regularly in this crisis mode. While riding up to Sulzberger’s office on the fourteenth floor, I thought about how in some ways I had drawn closer to the publisher since the Blair scandal erupted. I had spent so much time in his office, and we had talked so much and so candidly lately, that I was feeling comfortable enough to tell him the truth even when I knew he did not want to hear it.
I knew these were difficult times for Sulzberger, who, at fifty-two, was not just the publisher of the Times, arguably the world’s most important newspaper, but chairman of The New York Times Company, a multifaceted and highly profitable media company. For me, the publisher had always been a tough read. He was personable enough and actively worked to project an image of an everyday guy. He began most mornings in the gym, punishing his body in a successful effort to stay slim. He often ended his day by punishing his body with his favorite drink, Grey Goose vodka. Sulzberger exuded privilege, not intentionally, but by birthright. He was the fourth generation of the storied Ochs-Sulzberger newspaper dynasty that had built and nurtured the Times into the media brand it is today. As such, he could summon the corporate jet at will, set the course for the empire he headed, and determine my future, something always in the back of my mind.
It would be all but impossible for a man of his station and background to understand where I came from. It was a place of wanting, not having, and that want creates a nagging insecurity that remains no matter how high you rise. After my mother died and my father disappeared, I was reared in the stifling poverty—and love—of my grandmother’s home. I had no family dynasty to fall back on; my survival depended on me. Whereas Sulzberger was direct, blunt, at times irreverent, I had to tread carefully; an irreverent black man is likely to find he is not taken seriously. Reality made me cautious and guarded, weighing my words and actions. Blacks in the workplace want their white colleagues to know they have passions and obsessions, just as whites do, but we don’t want those interests and obsessions to be used against us. More often than not, I tried to let my performance speak louder than my words. And always, I worried that a display of too much of the real me could be dangerous.
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