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A Complicated First: A Black Editor Takes The Helm At The Gray Lady

<em>The New York Times</em> removed the first woman to ever hold its top editor post and replaced her with the first person of color to ever do so.
Mark Lennihan
The New York Times removed the first woman to ever hold its top editor post and replaced her with the first person of color to ever do so.

When New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger removed Jill Abramson from the paper's executive editor spot on Wednesday, it stunned the media world. Abramson was the first woman to ever fill the paper's top post and was credited with helping right its fiscal ship, and much of the early coverage about just why she was pushed out centered on a possible dispute over her pay, which was less than her male predecessors' compensation. (Sulzberger said that a pay dispute had nothing to do with her her ouster.)

Her replacement in that post is Dean Baquet, himself a journalistic heavyweight and a historic first in his own right: He'll be the first-ever African-American executive editor of the Times. Baquet, who was the managing editor under Abramson, is a popular figure in the Times newsroom and won a Pulitzer earlier in his career when he was at the Chicago Tribune. It was hard to miss the resonance and the implications of their two editorships abutting each other. (Full disclosure, in case it matters: I worked at the Times for six years, until 2011.)

"From now on, despite all of Baquet's credentials including his Pulitzer Prize, people will quietly wonder whether a still sexist New York Times elevated an African American, at least in part, to give itself cover for firing an uppity woman," Tracie Powell at All Digitocracy writes. Powell also points out that Baquet is becoming something of an aberration — the number of black staffers at the nation's newspapers has been steadily declining for some time.

The Times itself has a long, complicated history with both its black and its female journalists. "The New York Times has been sued by both minority and female journalists for the same thing: Discrimination," Powell writes.

"The book, 'Girls in the Balcony,' focuses on a band of exasperated women who filed a class action suit against the newspaper in 1974. 'Of the 21 names on the masthead in the early 1970s — encompassing both the editors and business-side executives — not one belonged to a woman,' according to a 1992 piece published in The American Journalism Review. Male journalists were paid $59 a week more, on average, than women journalists. Women's salaries ranked at the bottom, with the lone black woman journalist ranked dead last, AJR reported.

"New York Times managers were indignant, but wound up paying $350,000 to settle the lawsuit. The 550 women represented in the class action received $233,500 in back pay and the newspaper agreed to an affirmative action hiring plan. Still, the Times had not learned its lesson. Three years later, 15 minority employees sued the newspaper claiming racial discrimination in hiring and promotion practices."

Richard Prince, writing at Quartz, offers up some more background.

"It's a long time since 1945, when the New York Times hired George Streator as its first African American reporter. Streator's tenure did not end happily. In their 1999 book, The Trust, Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones write that Streator, 'having worked only at activist publications ... had no training in the Times' tradition of objectivity' and sometimes 'made up quotes in order to present blacks in a more positive light.' He was fired."

Prince goes on: "Indeed, there have been stellar journalists of color at the Times, but Dean Baquet's ascension to executive editor at the paper yesterday comes after stumbles by both Times management and the journalists themselves."

Jeff Copion's 2007 profile of the former Times Managing Editor Gerald M. Boyd, published not long after his death in 2006 at the age of 53, sheds some light on the complicated waltz Boyd had to carry out to get to that position. He oversaw the paper's heralded Sept. 11 coverage but ruffled a lot of feathers with his brusque demeanor. And before Baquet, Boyd came closer than any other black person to the Times' top spot, only to be brought down by the Jayson Blair scandal in 2003. The media portrayed the two as having a mentor-protege relationship — a characterization that seemed based entirely on the fact that they were both black — but Copion's profile shows that in reality, the two barely knew and deeply disliked each other.

Joe Coscarelli at Daily Intelligencer put together a nice little cheat sheet on Baquet, who grew up in New Orleans and dropped out of Columbia after working at a newspaper one summer. Fun fact: Baquet's not even the only Pulitzer winner in his family. "I've got two boys with two Pulitzers," Baquet's mom said back in 2006. (Her youngest son, Terry, won one at the New Orleans Times-Picayune.) "Not many mothers can say that."

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Gene Demby
Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.
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