8:32am

Mon June 13, 2011
Opinion

The Root: Times Not The First, But Deserves Note

Paul Delaney, a former reporter and editor at the New York Times

When I heard the historic announcement from Times Square the other day, that America's top newspaper had named a woman as executive editor, my thoughts drifted back to the 1972-1981 decade at the paper, and the words of Dickens — almost cliche nowadays — seemed apt: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

The New York Times, where I spent most of my career, appointed Jill Abramson to lead the newsroom. Her No. 2 will be Dean Baquet, named managing editor. It will be the first time the two top positions at the 160-year-old newspaper have been filled by a woman and a black man. That is a groundbreaking team.

The monumental change deserves more attention than the relatively subdued reaction it received. It also deserves more background and history, coming nearly three decades after women and minorities settled separate discrimination lawsuits against the paper. To my mind, the promotions represented the culmination of that legal action.

The suits, by minorities in 1972, and women two years later, accused the Times' newsroom managers of favoring white men in hiring, promotion, beat assignments and wages. At the time, not one black had risen above the position of reporter, and the highest-ranking women worked in "women's news" and covered social events.

The decade of litigation was a period of unprecedented high tension at the paper. While women were united in their effort, there was much division among minorities, and the entire episode took a heavy toll on us. My promotion as the first black editor on a news desk certainly was a result of the legal action and agitation, as were those of a few more, including Gerald Boyd, who eventually rose to managing editor in 2001, a very important first. But the protracted battle divided minorities in such a way that the unity and cohesion of that period seemed lost for good.

My late colleague Nan Robertson skillfully and beautifully chronicled the problems of women at the Times in her book, The Girls in the Balcony. Women greatly outnumbered blacks, and we were aware that their progress would far outdistance ours, immediately and in the future. Nevertheless, we did not let that bother us; during the litigations, both groups worked at being good allies and supported each other, and there was never rancor.

Our case was originally called a "black" suit, although the name-plaintiff, Benilda Rosario, was black Puerto Rican and proud of it, and another plaintiff was Morgan Jin, Chinese, who boasted of his admiration of Mao Zedong as he passed out Maoist literature to baffled young blacks. The name was changed to "minority" for obvious reasons.

Class Issues

Serious divisions in our ranks surfaced early, before the 1972 filing. The five plaintiffs — the other three were African Americans Don Barker, Wanda Jones and Conrad West — worked in commercial departments, advertising and circulation, and there was resistance — nay, outright refusal — by newsroom professionals to join in.

That class and ethnic tension went on for five years, until the attorneys for the plaintiffs, in 1977, enlisted Roger Wilkins, an editorial board member, and me, as a new editor, to lobby our fellow journalists to participate. They felt that if the two of us signed on, others would; plus, management would finally take the case seriously. The lawyers were correct on both counts. Eventually 16 of us signed on as witnesses, joining the plaintiffs as willing to testify against the Times at trial.

The strongest resistance came from Tom Johnson, the senior black reporter, who told the group that he could resolve any complaints directly with Executive Editor A.M. (Abe) Rosenthal. We considered that insulting, akin to the plantation rule of one slave designated by the master to speak on behalf of all. Nathaniel Sheppard, another reporter, was so upset with Johnson that he looked him in the eye and remarked, "Tom, I am so disappointed. I used to have the highest respect for you. Now I don't."

The tension among us percolated from then on, to final settlement in 1981. Our frequent meetings to discuss progress became more and more contentious as we argued over every move by the company; for example, we turned down as insulting the first settlement offer by the Times: $100,000. Some in the group wanted to accept and get it over with. I thought the white women made a mistake in accepting a $300,000 settlement, but they gained more than money.

An Unhappy Settlement

Even the offer we eventually approved — some $2 million and promises of change — was deemed inadequate by some of us. As I noted in my upcoming memoir, I felt our "group was coming apart, as the days and weeks rolled by slowly. I reluctantly agreed to the lawyers' suggestion to take the offer out of fear of a great implosion." Benilda Rosario was so upset that she termed the settlement "a joke and stormed out of the room.

"We were about to kill each other near the conclusion of the legal procedure, which should have been a time of celebration ... some of us hardly spoke to each other afterwards," I wrote.

In fact, our seven-person steering committee went so far out of the way to try to satisfy the named plaintiffs that our lawyers threatened to disassociate themselves from us, feeling that our process to divide the money was unfairly weighted in favor of the plaintiffs and the 16 who had agreed to be witnesses in the case. We went back to the drawing board.

The final meeting of the class, to announce the terms of the agreement, was notable in that it attracted a large group of Latinos, employees few of us had seen before. One black colleague grumbled to me, "Where'd all those Puerto Ricans come from?" My conclusion: "No one cheered; no one was happy." One surprise for me during the decade: There was no tension between the races and sexes in the newsroom over the lawsuits.

But for the most part, the Times met the terms of the agreement. I was on committees that monitored and enforced them. We established training positions for reporters and copy editors, set up a scholarship to fund tuition for several students and increased money for an already-existing tuition-refund program. Management also agreed that reporters on the metropolitan desk and new hires would be given the opportunity to spend at least one year on 10 important beats, like City Hall, politics and courts.

The paper stepped up its minority recruitment, spending several hundred thousand dollars adding more blacks, Hispanics and Asians (even one Native American, a first). In the early 1980s, there were only two Hispanics on the reporting staff: Juan de Onis in Latin America and Alfonso Narvaez on metro, and one photographer, Lee Romero. In addition, there was no retaliation against the litigants, as some feared. In fact, several, including Benilda Rosario, were given promotions.

The Outcome

The quick change in tone, effort and pace was ordered by the publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger, and his son and successor, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. The elder Sulzberger set up several affirmative action committees throughout the company, including its affiliates and small papers and television stations. His son increased the pace, personally leading the push to improve the paper's numbers. He became chairman of the diversity committee of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

However successful the recruitment campaign, there were some bumps, and lessons learned. A few white reporters were reluctant to participate, for example, in mentoring minority summer interns. They simply did not support affirmative action. Managers didn't press those who did not wish to be mentors, since there were enough other white volunteers.

I believe the changes made during the decades following the settlements led directly to the promotions of Abramson and Baquet. First, Times management selected Gerald Boyd for upward mobility, from reporter to metro editor to managing editor, and then chose Abramson and Baquet for ascension, all very talented journalists who deserved their rewards.

Boyd, unfortunately, along with executive editor Howell Raines, was a victim of the Jayson Blair plagiarism and fake-stories scandals and was forced out in 2003. Baquet was then placed in a position to move up, as national editor and then Washington editor (bureau chief) — and to keep a black on the masthead, the Washington editor, for the first time, was given the additional title of assistant managing editor.

Abramson, in her initial speech to her staff, gave due credit to those women on whose shoulders she stood to rise to the top, which was appropriate. They included Nan Robertson and columnist Maureen Dowd. Baquet could not do likewise because he has not endeared himself to his black colleagues. A self-described New Orleans Creole, he has no connections to black journalists' organizations and once avoided attending a dinner that honored black winners of Pulitzer Prizes — he is the only winner (1988, for investigative reporting at the Chicago Tribune) not in an official photo. Nonetheless, black journalists I've talked to fully support him in his new capacity.

I wish I could say the Times is leading the way. But other publications got there first, putting women and blacks in top positions. But the moves send an important message to the profession, and that is significant in an age where new media are leading us back to the 1950s, or worse, when it comes to diversity.

Copyright 2011 The Root. To see more, visit http://www.theroot.com/.