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.
Then there was Anatole Broyard, longtime book critic and columnist at the Times, who passed as white to escape the burden of race. His daughter, Bliss Broyard, wrote a book about him, One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life.
Gerald M. Boyd became the first black managing editor at the Times, only to lose his job after the 2003 scandal over Jayson Blair, the fabricator and plagiarist. When he died in 2006, some who spoke at his memorial service said that working for the Times was what killed him. Then executive editor Bill Keller told me there, “The burden of being in that role is something a few of us are beginning to comprehend.”
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.
And that’s part of the reason many journalists—particularly blacks—cheered his promotion.
“It’s a good day,” says Don Hudson, executive editor of the Decatur Daily in Alabama and a black journalist. “God is good. First a president and now the top journalist.”
The analogy to Barack Obama is fitting. Neither secured his position simply because he was black, but because of ideas, competence, and brain power. Baquet, in addition to his management skills, shared a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for his reporting for the Chicago Tribune on the Chicago City Council’s’ self-interest and waste.
Yet each man’s ascension comes with tremendous symbolism.
Another journalist friend of mine, Betty Anne Williams, marveled, “what an opportunity ANY editor of the NYT has to make a difference in news coverage, in shining a light on injustice and in employing people of color because of the nature of the Times. It is the newspaper operation with the greatest reach, the most bureaus and probably the most dollars invested in news-gathering. Sitting at the head of that table really means something—far more than having the ability to hire, fire and promote. That old saying about ‘setting the nation’s agenda’ continues to have some resonance where the Times is concerned.”
Baquet, a native of New Orleans, is proud of his blackness, having grown up in black neighborhoods and attended black schools until college. His family still owns a restaurant in the Crescent City.
But like Obama, Baquet has not worn his blackness on his sleeve. Some who have looked to Baquet to become a beacon of diversity hiring have been disappointed, despite the public commitments of others around him, such as his boss, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.
Still, Baquet sits where many wish they could. Such symbolism is important when, according to a 2012 survey of the American Society of News Editors, African-American journalists lost 993 newsroom jobs in the 10 years since 2002. This, at a time when the nation anticipates “majority-minority” status.
So let us praise Dean Baquet’s rise.
And know that there are other journalists of color waiting for their chance, too.