Op-ed: Too 'Pushy' for the NYT - Is Gender at the Heart of Jill Abramson's Firing?

We may never know the real story behind Abramson's sudden and unceremonious dismissal from the New York Times.

By: Victoria A. Brownworth
May 15 2014 2:09 PM

The story was succinct as it was mysterious. The New York Times headline was understated: "The New York Times Replaces Abramson as Executive Editor." The opening line read, "dismissed."

What never got said was Jill Abramson was fired.


Or why.


Or that she was being replaced with the man, Dean Baquet, who had been considered but passed over for the promotion she received in 2011 when she was appointed the first female executive editor of the NYT in the paper’s 163-year history.


Washington bureau chief and managing editor prior to becoming executive editor, Abramson came to the NYT from the Wall Street Journal where she was an investigative reporter and a deputy bureau chief. Her provenance is stellar.


Abramson was not responding to requests for comment, but comments were swirling nonetheless. Those comments pointed to far more than what publisher Arthur "Art" Sulzberger called "an issue with management in the newsroom" when he gave the reason for the "management change."


Even the circumstances of Abramson’s firing seemed extreme–including the fact that it was never stated that she was being fired.


Sulzberger called a meeting on the afternoon of May 14 and announced he had chosen "to appoint a new leader for our newsroom because I believe that new leadership will improve some aspects of the management of the newsroom."


He added, "You will understand that there is nothing more I am going to say about this, but I want to assure all of you that there is nothing more at issue here."


The story is there’s no story? Seriously? Sulzberger warned the newsroom not to discuss the issue. So the biggest news story in all of journalism is: Nothing to see here, people, move on?


The suddenness of Abramson’s non-firing firing took reporters and editors by surprise, as evidenced by a photo that accompanied the NYT’s own news story on the firing. The looks on reporters’ faces are both somber and stunned.   


NYT arts reporter Patricia Cohen exemplified the feelings in a tweet: "Everyone gob-smacked in NYT newsroom over Jill Abramson leaving and Dean Baquet taking over."     

 
Baquet, who is African-American, will become the paper’s first black executive editor.  


The spin kept spinning. The first NYT article was updated later, deleting some salient information that had appeared in the first version and adding a glowing report on Abramson’s replacement using terms like "affable" and "easy-going style." Yet Baquet is the same person who Sulzberger had not considered up to the job three years ago and who had been fired as editor of the Los Angeles Times in 2006, prior to joining the NYT where he had been a reporter in the 1990s.


The tone of the NYT piece is disturbing. Adjectives used to describe Abramson are typical gendered language: She was "rumored" to have been "polarizing" and "mercurial" and "brusque."


A short gossipy piece in the New Yorker by the magazine’s media critic Ken Auletta goes yet further. He cites Sulzberger having called Abramson "pushy"–which Auletta flat-out states is "a characterization that, for many [read:women], has an inescapably gendered aspect."


Gender is, inescapably, at the heart of the Abramson firing in theory and in practice. Auletta says it, the NYT articles practically trumpet it with the comments and quotes they use, and the facts as we know it make it clear. Abramson’s work was beyond reproach. Her sex was not.


There is–or rather, was–no other woman running one of the top 20 dailies in the U.S.


Not. One. Abramson was it.


It’s never easy to alter the current of white male journalism. Only 23% of leadership positions in media are held by women. There is only one female news anchor on all of television, ABC’s Diane Sawyer. The first woman to be a solo news anchor was Katie Couric, who was hired by CBS in 2006. There have only been only three other female co-anchors on the evening news since TV news began: Elizabeth Vargas, Connie Chung and the venerable Barbara Walters, who retired the same day as Abramson was fired.


In February the Columbia Journalism Review detailed the Women’s Media Center’s 2014 Status of Women in U.S. Media Report. It was staggeringly depressing. Men still comprise two-thirds of daily newspaper newsroom staff. Women make up 36%, a number that has remained unchanged since 1999.  


Male opinion columnists outnumber women 4 to 1 at three of the country’s most prestigious papers and four newspaper syndicates.


And at the NYT itself, the report notes men were quoted four times as often as women in front page news stories.


The NYT’s Sulzberger can spin the firing of Abramson all he wants, but the only other executive editor he’s fired was Howell Raines in 2003 and that was after the plagiarism scandal involving Jayson Blair, who was found to have either invented stories or "borrowed" them from other (female) writers.


What exactly did Abramson do wrong to get her so publicly and suddenly fired?


It’s all about the gender.


Abramson discovered a few weeks back that she was not being paid commensurate with her male predecessor nor had she been as managing editor. In fact, as Auletta alludes in his piece, she was being paid less than the man who is replacing her, Dean Baquet, who was assistant managing editor under her and then managing editor when she assumed the executive editor position.

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