Thanks to our peculiar American malady (and to the book’s subtitle), the responses of many readers to this portion of the narrative will be conditioned by their interest in race. That is unfortunate. Boyd’s account of life as a young reporter is one of the best I can recall, and though he is unmistakably black, his tale is utterly universal.

At Missouri, Boyd studied journalism and political science, believing that a second degree would make him more marketable. There he discovered the basic creed common to strong reporters: “A good journalist needs only a keen interest in a particular subject. Curiosity plus legwork becomes expertise.”

In June 1972, following two summers as a copyboy at the Post-Dispatch, Boyd was upgraded to student reporter. On his first day, he asked the city editor where he should sit. “I don’t give a fuck,” came the brusque reply. Retreating to the back of the newsroom, he found an empty desk, and was eventually given an assignment. “My hands were shaking as I began to hunt and peck the keys to type my first story,” he writes. “Don’t let me screw up, I offered a silent prayer to God. Don’t let me screw up.”

After graduation, Boyd was hired. Strolling into the newsroom, he was still nervous, but already harbored ambitions “to win a Pulitzer Prize, to make a million dollars, and to grace the cover of Time magazine—all in my first year.” His editors had other plans, assigning him to a succession of fires and homicides. A mentor told the discouraged novice that talent matters, “but it is never the sole factor in success,” preparing him for a prolonged immersion in office politics.

As it happened, professional breakthroughs would come quickly for Boyd. After a mere two years at the paper, he became the first black reporter to cover city hall for a mainstream St. Louis publication. Soon after, he was named journalist of the year by the Post-Dispatch and the Globe-Democrat—another first for an African-American. By 1978, he was working at the paper’s Washington bureau. In quick succession, Boyd would cover the Reagan White House, win a Nieman Fellowship (youngest ever), and be recruited by The New York Times.

His job interview with the legendary Times editor A. M. Rosenthal went off without a hitch. But when Boyd was ushered into the office of Rosenthal’s deputy, Jimmy Greenfield, to discuss salary and other details, he was served up with an instant indignity: “I really enjoyed your clips—they’re so well written. Did you write them yourself, or did someone write them for you?” On the heels of this exposure to what he calls “the ugly underside of life at the Times,” Boyd (like other black reporters of this era, myself included) was assigned to the euphemistically named “urban affairs” beat.

There would soon be other slights, including those that came in the form of compliments. “You’re our Jackie Robinson,” Boyd was repeatedly told by his superiors. When he was promoted to the Washington bureau, an editor asked him if he were “ready” to begin reporting. Later, when offered the post of Atlanta correspondent, Boyd was told he was perfect for the job, since he could “cover the South as a black man.”

Nonetheless, Boyd continued his remarkable rise. When he was assigned anew to the White House, he writes, “I did not feel as if my race had anything to do with my getting the post.”

Here the narrative enters its trickiest territory, for if race worked to undo Boyd’s career, it had just as clearly helped make it. He had been the beneficiary of a special brand of affirmative action, fast-tracked by a management suddenly sensitive about its own stark lack of diversity.

This, of course, was unfair to the highly capable Boyd from the start. As his colleague Bernard Weinraub recounts, he was saddled with a double burden: “to represent his race and create the best journalism.” Boyd’s leapfrogging ascent in an intensely competitive environment stirred powerful resentments, which found in the Blair scandal the kind of socially acceptable cover it needed to surface.

As a younger African-American peer of Boyd’s, I know something of the dynamics of racial resentment at the Times. When I was assigned to cover the Caribbean in 1990, certain white colleagues grumbled openly that I owed my promotion to affirmative action—even though I spoke French and Spanish and was busily learning Creole, and had done successful stints in Haiti amid outbreaks of political upheaval. Later, my very first conversation with a new foreign editor consisted of a telephoned shouting-down about calling the newspaper racist (I had not) over its Africa coverage.

Howard W. French is an associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2003 to 2008, he was Shanghai bureau chief of The New York Times. His latest book, China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa, will be released this May. He is currently writing a book about the geopolitics of East Asia.