American Journalism Trailblazers: Herb Boyd

| December 28, 2011

“The Very Reason There is a Need for Black News Outlets is Because of the Relentless Racism That Impacts Every Niche and Sinecure of Our Society”

Herb Boyd is an awarding-winning author and journalist and has published 22 books and countless articles for national magazines and newspapers. Brotherman: The Odyssey of Black Men in America: An Anthology (One World/Ballantine, 1995), co-edited with Robert Allen of the Black Scholar journal, won the American Book Award for nonfiction.

In 1999, Boyd won three first place awards from the New York Association of Black Journalists for his articles published in the Amsterdam News. Among his most popular books are Black Panthers for Beginners (Writers & Readers, 1995); Autobiography of a People: Three Centuries of African American History Told By Those Who Lived It (Doubleday, 2000); Race and Resistance: African Americans in the 21st Century (South End Press, 2002); The Harlem Reader (Crown Publishers, 2003); We Shall Overcome: A History of the Civil Rights Movement (Sourcebooks, 2004); and Pound for Pound:The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson (Amistad, 2005).

 

In 2006, Boyd worked with world music composer Yusef Lateef on his autobiography The Gentle Giant, which was published by Morton Books of New Jersey. In 2008, he published Baldwin’s Harlem: A Biography of James Baldwin, and is working with filmmaker Keith Beauchamp on several projects.

Boyd has been inducted into both the Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent and the Madison Square Garden Hall of Fame as a journalist.

Along with his writing, Boyd is national and international correspondent for Free Speech TV. A graduate of Wayne State University in Detroit, Boyd teaches African and African-American History at the College of New Rochelle in the Bronx, and is an adjunct instructor at City College in the Black Studies Department.

The celebrated author and journalist granted From The G-Man an exclusive interview to discuss what he describes as his “grave disappointment in the mainstream media”, racism in the news industry, Tavis Smiley, and why more and more Black journalists are failing to cover important issues relating to the Black community.

G-Man: What was your very first assignment as a reporter?

Boyd: An editor approached me, after learning of my writing ability and knowledge of my community, to write a short history of my neighborhood. I was not sure exactly what he wanted but after a conversation or two he narrowed it down to the night life, you know, the jazz clubs and that was right down my alley, so to speak. This occurred many years ago in Detroit but it got me started in my early twenties and it was a follow up to some of my early writings in high school and in the Army.

G-Man: What has been the greatest benefit of working at the Amsterdam News?

Boyd: Getting in touch with the Harlem community and its hundreds of informants. From them I learned about the history of Harlem and over the years I’ve accumulated enough material to complete my book on its history, which I’m currently seeking to publish.
G-Man: How have the Tatums, the paper’s publishers, and the Amsterdam News impacted not just the Black community of New York City, but the country?

Boyd: They have been unstinting in their commitment to good journalism and coverage of the African-American community. Through their tireless and unwavering devotion, Harlem and the world have been the beneficiaries of their concern to tell it like it is, to deliver all the news the mainstream print either found unworthy or unimportant.

G-Man: What or who influenced you, in terms of journalism?

Boyd: My first influence was hundreds of nameless journalists and newspaper people who turned me on to the news. I guess I always wanted to be a reporter, or, perhaps most essentially, a writer. I started off hoping to be a great American novelist, but being a political and social activist led me, inadvertently, to journalism. I felt a need to report back to the community our struggles and that led me inexorably into the community service that continues to inspire me.

G-Man: Thus far, what do you consider to be your greatest journalistic accomplishment?

Boyd: My greatest journalistic accomplishment is still waiting to happen; though I’m quite satisfied with the reports I’ve done on police brutality and the racist attacks on Black Americans.

G-Man: What truly angers you about the current state of journalism in America?

Boyd: One of my main concerns about the current state of journalism is that it continues to shrink in size and substance. Once upon a time we had papers all over the place, but nowadays they are disappearing faster than yesterday’s headlines. Sure, there’s a plethora of stuff on the Internet, but much of it is pointless chatter except when the social networking kicks in and sparks social activism.

G-Man: In 2003, Jayson Blair resigned from the New York Times after editors discovered he plagiarized news stories and repeatedly lied about how he obtained information and/or sources. Since that time, numerous reporters at magazines and newspapers have been fired for committing similar offenses. The reporters defended their actions by claiming they were under enormous pressure to meet deadlines, as did Blair. Having said that, do you suspect Blair was the only one at the Times doing this and that, perhaps, he was made the scapegoat?

Boyd: I’ve written a few stories on the Blair incident and others related to plagiarism and it’s never an easy circumstance. I’m always concerned about the individual’s motivation and the conditions that forced them to that option. I know there’s always been a lot of competitive pressure on journalists and academics who are prey to the same temptations, but it remains a matter of personal integrity, and one has to be endowed with a sense of honor and fortitude and not succumb to the easy path to success.

G-Man: Is there a vital issue or story regarding the Black

African-American Author Herb Boyd

community that you feel has been completely ignored by Black news sources? If so, why have Black journalists failed to cover it?

Boyd: There are hundreds of stories waiting to be told but the Black press, given its under-capitalized financial situation, does not have the wherewithal to do much more than it does. One of the things I’ve often bellyached about is the lack of investigative journalism in the Black press. To assign a reporter to more than one week of work with a decent wage seems to be a low priority for most Black publishers—and that’s a shame. Even so, I’ve tried to undertake this task on several occasions and it’s paid off in awards, if not pay.

G-Man: On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate ABC, CBS, CNN, FOX News, MSNBC, NBC and PBS, in terms of adhering to journalism’s best practices and standards?

Boyd: I am gravely disappointed in the mainstream media and that’s why many years ago I made up mind to put all my energy into alternative outlets. At the beginning of my career, at the Detroit Free Press, I watched editors’ trash press releases of stories I thought were important. On one occasion, I rescued one and brought it the city editor’s attention and that began my march out of the door. From there I went to the Black press and then to alternative newspapers, radio and television stations. And I’ve never looked back or regretted that move.

G-Man: Av Westin, former executive producer for the “ABC Evening News”, wrote a book a number of years ago called Best Practices for Television Journalists. In a chapter entitled “Bias”, Westin revealed that race often played a major role in determining who would obtain high-profile anchor positions at major networks and the types of stories that would be covered. Westin angered many news industry insiders with this revelation. Can you offer an example, drawing from personal experience, which would substantiate Westin’s claim?

Boyd: The very reason there is need for Black news outlets is because of the relentless racism that impacts every niche and sinecure of our society. The media, ostensibly, is forged to buffer and bolster the other pillars of the society and in our capitalist, racist, incipiently fascist society; with only a few exceptions it plays this role unflinchingly well. Even when they do dip into things in a counter-intuitive way it’s only momentary and then it’s back to the old tired routine. We often talk about how we are impugned by the New York Post, but it is not alone and all we have to do is to remember some of the reactionary covers of the New Yorker and other magazines to know the insensitivity and disregard the publications can have for minorities.

G-Man: In two sentences or less, describe the following: Ed Bradley, Gil Noble, Max Robinson, Carol Ford, Sue Simmons, Bev Smith, Tavis Smiley and Ed Gordon.

Boyd: I know or knew all of them personally except the late Max Robinson and Carol Ford. The others are exemplars of the best journalists in the media, Black, White or otherwise. Noble stands apart for his unimpeachable integrity, and I was always thrilled each time he asked me to appear on his show, Like It Is. I worked with Gordon at the beginning of his career in Detroit, and I miss his thoroughgoing reports and analysis.

G-Man: I want to place the spotlight on Tavis Smiley for this next question. People from different backgrounds and races have expressed displeasure with Smiley for what they consider to be relentless attacks against President Obama. While citing he has the right to pose important questions regarding the plight of Black America, many feel he has crossed the boundaries of responsible journalism by questioning or speaking in a manner that appears to be “personal”. What is your assessment?

Boyd: For me, Tavis blows hot and cold. At his best—and some folks think he is not a journalist at all—he is fine interrogator; at his worst, he fails miserably. He once interviewed me and I thought he spent too much time talking about himself rather than gathering my impressions. Yes, he’s caused quite a stir here lately with his poverty tour, which was well-intended, though he and Dr. West may have bitten off much more than they can chew.

Baldwin's Harlem (Herb Boyd)

G-Man: In 2008, your book, “Baldwin’s Harlem: A Biography of James Baldwin”, was published and received rave reviews. Given that Baldwin was a native of the Harlem community, a community he dearly loved, what do you think the legendary author’s reaction would be to the “new” Harlem?

Boyd: James practically expressed his anger and derision of the “new Harlem” in one of his last essays. He confessed that he hardly recognized it; I think what he really missed was a certain camaraderie, bonhomie of the people, the failure of them to deliver that warmth and familiarity that was so much apart of his coming of age. Change is inevitable and to expect things to remain the same was naïve on his part, but it could have been an accumulation of lost things; his lack of confidence in navigating a terrain he once knew like the back of his hand.

G-Man: Complete this statement: The greatest lesson my parents taught me as a child was…..

Boyd: To find my dream and make it come true.

G-Man: Finally, what advice would you offer to young people that are currently pursuing careers in journalism?

Boyd: Make sure you’re doing something you dearly love, something you’d do even if they didn’t pay you. In short, find something that you can’t live without, a passion that you never tire of. If journalism is your desire, you will know it early on and if it doesn’t stick after a year or two, you’re in the wrong profession. Writers know when the ink is in their blood and the best of us know there’s little we can do about it but surrender.

Herb Boyd photo and bio obtained via http://aalbc.com/authors/herb_boyd.htm. Visit this site for more information on Boyd or to purchase any of the aforementioned books.

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