jimsleeper.com » Race and Power at The New York Times

Race and Power at The New York Times

By Jim Sleeper – April 7, 2010, 6:13PM

Everyone attending the long wake for high-end newspapers knows about My Times in Black and White: Race and Power at The New York Times, the new memoir-cum-indictment of racism at that paper by the late Gerald Boyd, who was fired as its managing editor in 2003, along with executive editor Howell Raines, partly for their supposed “diversity”-driven coddling of Jayson Blair, a black reporter who’d plagiarized and fabricated elements in many of his news stories.

Boyd left bitterly, protesting that although he’d never mentored Blair, whom others could and should have reined in, he was being blamed only because, as the paper’s senior black editor, he embodied a Times “diversity” regimen that was detested by many whites at the paper.

Let me stipulate that Boyd is right about this part of the story and that racism at the Times has often been ubiquitous and grinding, if sometimes subtle. But let me also stipulate what good journalists are supposed to remember: that there is another side of the story – and I don’t mean the nasty, Glenn Beck side, which isn’t part of the story at all.

The “real” other side in this case is that the Times’ loopy “diversity” regimen of the 1990s sometimes compounded the racism it was supposed to confound. Not only racist whites detested it; so did some non-whites and white left-liberals. (It should also be said that while the Blair scandal was the immediate cause the newsroom rebellion that ousted Boyd and Raines, that rebellion was as much about both men’s peremptory management style as about race.)

Acknowledging that both sides of the racial dimension of a story may be true —  in this case, that both racism and its “anti-racist” antidote at the Times could be dangerously wrong — requires what John Keats called a “negative capability” to hold two incompatible truths in mind at once.

Unfortunately that capability deserts many otherwise formidably intelligent American liberals whenever they consider anything touching upon race. They tend, not surprisingly, to be the liberals whose own workplaces and social lives are atypically sheltered from diversity regimens and from black colleagues and friends. The most absurd diversity protocols tend to be imposed by rich, white liberals such as Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr. and by less-rich but penitential white southerners such as Howell Raines.

One name for the consequences is “Liberal Racism,” and I wrote a book by that name in 1997, long before Jayson Blair was at the Times. It has a chapter, “Media Myopia,” telling the other side of the story about Boyd, Raines, Sulzberger, and diversity at their paper. Therefore, Liberal Racism cannot be mentioned by any liberal reviewer of Boyd’s book.

In a review for The New York Review of Books, Russell Baker adopts an agnostic, even bemused stance toward Boyd’s charges of racism and others’ complaints that “diversity” had run amok at the paper. Baker keeps trying to joke about the national media furor over Jayson Blair, invoking for example, “John Kenneth Galbraith’s definition of a newspaper columnist as a person obliged to find significance three times a week in events of absolutely no consequence.”

But Baker also has to keep reminding himself and the rest of us that one can’t dismiss the Blair fiasco as easily as he seems to keep wanting to do: “‘Diversity’ is not a subject for light amusement in America,” he intones at one point. “It is a subject that Americans take to the Supreme Court.” Yet Baker seems determined to leave it right there, lifting not a finger to assess either old-fashioned racism or liberal racism at Boyd’s Times.

You might think that anyone who really cared about racism would want to repair this default a bit, but when I tried to do so in The Closest of Strangers and Liberal Racism, some liberals, black and white, especially in New York (and especially not in Chicago) became as uncomfortable as the London left was when Orwell tried to tell the whole truth about the anti-fascist struggle in Spain. In New York, only an Orlando Patterson or some other black thinker who is unassailably yet un-dogmatically liberal could say exactly what I was saying, and not be accused of lending aid and comfort to racists themselves.

Liberal Racism’s chapter on “diversity” at the Times opens with a story that Gay Talese told me about Gerald Boyd. It then describes some sad, silly aspects of the Times’ diversity regimen. It ends by showing that the “diversity” obsession sometimes compromised the paper’s news coverage of race.

Like this Daily News column about Raines in 1994, the chapter was an Early Warning that something was amiss. But I am white, and, in the minds of people whose negative capability collapses before race, that was that.

When Boyd read my account of the Talese story about him in galleys of the book, he called me. I still remember returning his call from a pay phone at the corner of Astor Place and Broadway and listening to him threaten to summon his attorneys. “Make my day,” I replied. He never did.

I’ve never thought of Gerald Boyd as anything less than what Baker suggests — a tragic and therefore somewhat noble casualty of racism. But I think that he was a casualty of both the old-fashioned, enduring kind and the liberal kind, which he detested for lowering the bar — and with it, whites’ estimation of him — when all he really wanted was the elementary compliment of being judged by the same standards the Times applied to whites.

Liberal racism bedeviled Boyd — as it does millions of American blacks — until its debilitating over-solicitude became indistinguishable from what it really is: a species of racism itself. No wonder that liberals still can’t talk about it.