Much Ado or Too Much Ado About Jill Abramson

Editor’s note: the following is an opinion piece by George Salamon

Jill Abramson, executive editor of The New York Times since September 2011 and the first woman in that position, was fired by the paper’s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. on May 14. It was ugly. Some journalists referred to it as a defenestration. Ms. Abramson, in a commencement speech at Wake Forest University on May 19 called it “getting dumped.” It has created a huge buzz in the media. Within the first 24 hours after the event, not attended by Ms. Abramson, The Washington Post ran ten stories about it. Almost immediately columns appeared, telling readers what it “really” meant. As they say in New York City, Ms. Abramson’s home town, “Oh yeah?”

Ms. Abramson charged that she was dumped so suddenly and unceremoniously because she complained about getting paid less than the male predecessors in her job. Mr. Sulzberger claimed she was let go because of her management style in the newsroom, a style described by adjectives like brusque, arbitrary, harsh, non-collaborative and despotic.

Several publications ran articles that supported Ms. Abramson’s charges, among them The New Yorker. Her annual salary, at the time of her dismissal, was $525,000, enough probably even in New York to put croissants on the table. Mr. Sulzberger asserted that she was not rewarded less than former male executive editors. Articles will likely sort out who’s telling the truth about money here, or if each side simply interpreted the numbers in its own fashion. Accounting can lead to the darndest things. Or, the matter will be settled in that quintessentially American way, by a lawsuit.

It is much harder to talk about effective “management style,” particularly in journalism. Fabled editors have not been known as hail-fellow-well-met characters but rather as brusque tyrants who growled at everybody but knew a good story from a so-so one and edited with a sharp and judicious pen. If Ms. Abramson treated some reporters differently than others, that is likely to emerge in future stories too.

But what we have learned so far isn’t enough to come down on her or on his side. Numbers can be arranged and presented so that they do lie or cover up. Her newsroom style awaits testimony from a representative number of staffers so that a pattern of her behavior emerges clearly. Surely reporters at Vanity Fair or New York or Politico are standing by, waiting to hear from buddies at the Times to clue them in on how Jill Abramson ran the newsroom.

What does seem clear, however, is that the paper did not disintegrate under her editorship. In the months before her firing it ran an excellent series on the expansion of poverty in America. And just days after, on May 19, a fine story on p.1 captured the “harsh conditions” for migrant workers constructing New York University’s campus in the United Arab Emirates. That’s the kind of story the paper has the editorial resources to cover, and one expects that it will continue covering them no matter who its executive editor is.

If Ms. Abramson was let go, however, because she justifiably raised the unequal pay issue, her dismissal should produce ripple effects throughout the media. Sexism remains in many of our institutions. Some have done much to cut it down, others merely pay lip service. We should find out, sooner or later, where the Times has stood and stands now.

Media coverage of the Abramson firing soon had to focus on the “up close and personal” minutiae in absence of clear evidence supporting either protagonist. What we got, therefore, a week after was Sulzberger mouthing corporate public relations talk and Abramson gritty girl talk after being wronged.

We discovered that Abramson has three tattoos, one of a NYC subway token, one of an H, standing for her alma mater Harvard and her husband Henry, and one of a gothic “T” for the NYT. No swell details like that came our way about Sulzberger.

At her commencement speech at Wake Forest Abramson compared her situation to that of the graduating seniors seeking their first job in a grim market: “I’m in exactly the same boat as many of you, “she said. That is terribly disingenuous or insensitive. She is a Harvard graduate with a fabulous resume and stunning connections and therefore not in the same boat as kids job hunting while often paying off huge student loans. She hit a false, cloying note of self-pity here.

Until we know more, what have we witnessed in the paper’s latest spectacle? Two privileged baby boomers (he’s 62, she’s 60) whining and bitching and backbiting. But wait; there are more episodes to come in this soap opera. But since this is about The New York Times, maybe we should call it something more elevated. This detergent drama about the male and (allegedly) sexist boss and his female tattooed executive editor is going to have a long run in the media.

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