How an historic moment in the news business is undercut by race and gender politics

Dean Baquet’s historic new role at The New York Times seen as a mixed bag for diversity

Gossip overshadowed the history-making moment for Dean Baquet. He became the first African-American to head the venerable New York Times. The focus, instead, was on whether gender politics — or something else — played a part in his predecessor’s ouster.

Dean Baquet is the first African American executive editor of The New York Times.

Dean Baquet is the first African American executive editor of The New York Times.

The New Yorker‘s Ken Auletta quoted unnamed sources who said former editor Jill Abramson was fired because she clashed with higher ups; NPR’s David Folkenflik quoted unnamed sources saying money was the “final rupture” to the relationship; BuzzFeed’s Kate Aurthur recounted internal squabbles “friends” told her about that led to Abramson’s exit; Politico‘s Dylan Byers and The New York Times‘ own David Carr and Ravi Somaiya speculated that Baquet’s anger over Abramson’s attempt to install a co-managing editor without his consent precipitated her abrupt departure.

Abramson’s firing is a great story, filled with intrigue and resonance for a lot of women — black and white — who have fought the good fight in corporate America. But Baquet’s promotion is an equally great story because of its historic resonance. Media watchers are doing a poor job telling both these stories in ways that do justice not only to both individuals, but also the struggles that both women and minorities have experienced in white male dominated corporate cultures, including at The New York Times

My main beef is that idle chatter seems to be pushing aside Baquet’s historic moment, and that his celebratory party is over before it even got started. But a friend told me that since the two stories are linked, journalists can’t tell one without the other. “That’s a fine needle to thread, I know. Especially when we deal with the intersection of race and gender,” she said. 

It would help to provide a little context. Here’s the back story:

The New York Times has been sued by both minority and female journalists for the same thing: Discrimination. 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.

Judith Cummings, who died last week, received a glowing obituary in the Times. But in 1977 she was one of the people who sued the newspaper. Cummings testified that “minority reporters were often left languishing on local beats while their white counterparts moved up,” the Times reported this week in remembrance of Cummings.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault (the first black journalist to graduate from my Alma mater, The University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism), Earl Caldwell and Roger Wilkins were also part of the federal lawsuit. Once again, in 1981, The New York Times settled out of court. The newspaper established a minority training and recruitment program and promised to give minority journalists more serious consideration when it came to promotions and assignments. Cummings received her first metropolitan beat assignment in 1981; she became the Time’s first black bureau chief four years later.

“The passing of Judith Cummings, 68, the first black woman to head a national news bureau for The New York Times, reminds us that the NYT’s sorry history of opening opportunities to people of color and women are longstanding (and they are not alone),” Cindy George, Parliamentarian for the National Association of Black Journalists, wrote in a Facebook post. “Cummings died last week, but she and other black journalists paved the way for Dean Baquet to ascend to lead the newsroom today.”

Baquet’s rise to the top echelons of The New York Times is the realization of the dreams and hard-fought battles of journalists who came before him. But for many his rise is also a reminder of a cold, hard truth: Dean Baquet is an anomaly.

Black journalists in US newsrooms are declining, and even fewer are members of newsroom management where important hiring and promotion decisions are made.

Before becoming the first African American executive editor at the Times, Baquet, 57, was the first African American editor of The Los Angeles Times. He got that job in 2005 and joined the ranks of a number of African Americans serving as editor at large daily newspapers throughout the country, including The Denver Post, The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky., The Tennessean in Nashville, The Seattle Post Intelligencer, The Philadelphia Daily News and The Akron Beacon Journal, journalism historian and Hampton University professor Wayne Dawkins reported at the time.

Of the six newspapers, only two still have black editors: Gregory L. Moore of The Denver Post and Michael Days of The Philadelphia Daily News.  

Women, on the other hand, have fared better, but not much better. They represent about 36 percent of newsroom staffs, a figure largely unchanged since 1999. Abramson too was a first: The first woman to helm The New York Times newsroom.

Depending on who you talk to, or who you read, Abramson is described as both a trailblazer and pushy (a loaded term if there ever was one). Whether she was abrasive and alienating and/or a great reporter, but poor manager, are legitimate questions that have yet to be answered (especially since no one is talking on the record). What we do know is that her troubling exit is now forever linked to Baquet’s noteworthy promotion.

Why aren’t people celebrating the appointment of the Times’ first black executive editor more?” tweeted Ishaan Tharoor, foreign affairs writer for The Washington Post. “Don’t quite see how power struggles among some of the most well-paid, privileged folk in an industry tell larger stories we ought relate to.”

And there’s the rub. The success of people of color in the workplace should not come at the expense of women’s success, or vice versa, but it often does as sexism and racism go hand-in-hand. 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.

As a black, female journalist who has also been called uppity, I know both Abramson’s and Baquet’s stories all too well because I’ve lived it, and am living it. And no, that complicated interplay of race and gender inside white, male dominated cultures doesn’t get any easier to write or talk about.