There is perhaps no better time to speak well of someone than when they pass away. But tributes can be excessive to the point where the truth is utterly lost, and low moments of someone's career are glossed over. When we lose presidents, partisans of one stripe or the other think the celebration risks ignoring or going beyond the facts of history. In today's Washington Post, Marcia Davis's appreciation of departed New York Times managing editor Gerald Boyd, dismissed by the Times in the furor over utterly fraudulent reporting by Jayson Blair, Davis claims no one can challenge Boyd's record as a stickler for accuracy and against racial favoritism. The caption the front page of the Style section didn't mention Blair, but merely: "As he mentored new generations of journalists, Boyd was an unyielding stickler for accuracy." Davis recalled the Blair scandal this way:
It would be a year later when Jayson Blair would blow up the New York Times. Blair was a troubled young man who fabricated stories and shook the newsroom -- and the paper's credibility -- to its core. The scandal ended the two-year leadership of top editor Howell Raines and Boyd. It was a heartbreaker. But I wasn't just sorry that my teacher and friend had been short-circuited. I was angry.
I, like many journalists, and not just black ones, was incensed when some charged that because Boyd and Blair were black men, Boyd had gone easy on the young reporter. How, after Boyd had proved himself for so many years, could his integrity, and the integrity of all black journalists, be called into question simply because of race? Boyd was a black man, and a black man who cared about race in America, but he was not crippled by it.
I knew how exacting and tenacious he was, how much he demanded excellence, and how much he believed in what he was doing. I had even fended off complaints from other black journalists who charged that he was too hard or didn't care about them. Though Boyd acknowledged that he and Raines had made mistakes, coddling Blair because of his race wasn't one of them.
It's simply not accurate for Davis to claim that to challenge that by questioning Blair, people were questioning "all black journalists." It's true that people questioned whether racial favoritism played a part. In former Newsweek media writer Seth Mnookin's book on the Times struggles, Hard News, Mnookin reported that Blair was given repeated coddling in the diversity-obsessed reign of Boyd and top editor Howell Raines. Other editors, like metro editor Jonathan Landman, famously warned that Blair needed to be removed, but Boyd and Raines did not budge. The proof of Blair's coddling was obviously there in the lying, fraudulent black and white of the newspaper's pages, with phony facts and invented datelines. Nevertheless, Davis's tribute painted a portrait of Boyd as the stringent guardian of accuracy and fairness:
I and others learned about asking tough questions, being fair and accurate and how credibility was all any journalist had. Questioning authority meant everything. If your mother says she loves you, check it out.
A few times I tagged along with Boyd while he worked. Once, when he went to a city agency where senior citizens had gathered to complain about ill treatment, who would I find there but my own grandmother, sitting with a number of other women from the public housing complex where she lived -- and where I had spent a big part of my own life.
Journalism was about people, their tragedies and their triumphs, their struggles and their successes. Journalism was about challenging those in power to get it right. And when they got it wrong, it was a journalist's job to call them on it.
Boyd was never shy about his belief in the purity of these notions and his belief in newspapers to honor them. That can sound like a bunch of hokum to those who complain about the liberal media or corporate-run media (as I did when I got to college), but he believed it deeply, lived it fully.
One can appreciate that Davis feels that it is wrong to judge Boyd by one bad apple of a reporter, as if everyone judged Bob Woodward just by his failure to prevent Janet Cooke's lying reports from getting into the Washington Post. But there's a difference between arguing for balance in remembering the past and arguing that what went wrong somehow never happened.