Boyd's tragic, turbulent Times

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 29, 2010; 9:43 AM

Faced with what would become the greatest fraud in the history of the New York Times, Gerald Boyd did not want his own reporters to investigate.

"A handoff is a dereliction of duty," he told his boss, Howell Raines, as they grappled with the fallout from Jayson Blair's fabrications. Boyd could not have been more wrong.

My name first appears a page earlier in Boyd's emotional account of his rise and fall at the newspaper, so I have a personal as well as professional interest in the unraveling that led to the ouster of the paper's two top editors. There is much I didn't know, especially about the fierce resentment that Boyd came to harbor toward Raines, and blind spots on Boyd's part that are even more glaring in retrospect.

Boyd died in 2006, so his posthumous memoir -- "My Times in Black and White," brought to publication by his wife, Robin -- stands as his final word on the subject. The narrative is important because newspapers still struggle with issues of plagiarism and bogus reporting, as well as race, trust and how best to supervise aggressive journalists.

Raines made many mistakes during his brief tenure as executive editor -- his arrogant style played a key role in his downfall -- but he was absolutely right during that 2003 confrontation with Boyd. For top managers to conduct the investigation, as Boyd wanted, would have utterly lacked credibility. The Times had to subject itself to the same kind of no-holds-barred journalism it inflicts on everyone else.

In a brief interview, Raines says: "I'm glad Robin brought the book out to give him his say. My main response to the book is sadness. It made me very sad that Gerald is gone and that he had such tragedy in his life."

* * *

I knew Gerald slightly when he was a White House correspondent and interviewed him a couple of times when he was metropolitan editor and, later, the first black managing editor at the Times. A teenage grocery bagger in St. Louis whose mother had died when he was young, Boyd was a proud man with a brittle approach to management.

Race always loomed large for him, as in this reflection on his promotion by Raines: "Could his decision to name me managing editor be rooted in nothing more than white guilt over four centuries of oppression?" When the New Yorker did a devastating profile of Raines, Boyd was described as "an imposing figure" -- which, he says, "I read as a big, menacing black man."

It is hard not to feel for Boyd as he recounts how he came to hate his job and distanced himself from what he called Raines's "bare-knuckled management style" and "management by torture. . . . I knew that he could be wrong and a bully."

The troubled Blair resigned two days after I reported that he had lifted numerous passages from a San Antonio Express-News piece. Boyd took issue with my follow-up story, which noted that the Times had run more than 50 corrections of Blair's reporting in less than four years. "Without context, the number did not explain much," Boyd wrote, saying I had failed to address such issues. Actually, my story cited four specific instances of Blair's questionable reporting.

As The Washington Post uncovered more examples of Blair never speaking to people he purported to quote -- and the Times weighed in with the 7,000-word probe that Boyd had opposed -- Boyd became worried about damage control. He said the Times reporters treated him "as if I were the enemy." He admitted to bureaucratic errors, such as not telling the national editor of Blair's poor performance reviews. Although Boyd had told him to straighten out during their two formal meetings, the editor felt, with some justification, that he was being unfairly depicted as Blair's protector -- because both men were black.

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