Op-ed: Too 'Pushy' for the NYT - Is Gender at the Heart of Jill Abramson's Firing?
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 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.
Abramson also began righting a long-term wrong at the NYT by appointing women to editorial positions and moving them up the management ladder. The paper had previously been sued by female employees for gender pay discrimination.
Then there was the Jimmy Saville story. Abramson pursued the story of the BBC TV presenter who was discovered to have been a pedophile and serial abuser of children. In reporting the story, conflicts allegedly arose between Abramson and the newly hired Mark Thompson, whom Sulzberger hired away from BBC in 2012 to run the business end of the New York Times Company as CEO.
Thompson was at BBC during the Saville investigation and Abramson’s stories raised questions about when Thompson first knew of the sex abuse. The suggestion that he might have known sooner than he claimed or outright lied is alleged to have created tension in their working relationship, as the Washington Post reported the morning after Abramson’s firing. In addition, as Auletta noted, Abramson objected to intrusions of the business end of the company into editorial.
Yet the final conflict actually seems to have been more of a coup orchestrated by Baquet against Abramson. In a public argument at the paper, Baquet–as the NYT reported–recently punched a wall in anger over Abramson. One might imagine that would be cause for dismissal rather than promotion, but while it was reported, no action was taken against Baquet.
Baquet was also irked with Abramson over her deciding to engage a second managing editor from outside the paper specifically to address the digital side of the NYT, which Abramson felt needed full-time attention. Interestingly, this fact was edited out of the first NYT article on Abramson’s firing. Baquet went to Sulzberger to complain. Insiders at the paper allege Baquet said he could/would no longer work with her.
That, combined with her demand for equal pay–although the paper disputed claims she was paid less than her predecessor Bill Keller or Baquet–seems to have sealed her dismissal. Sulzberger also was bothered that Abramson had been appearing on panels speaking about journalism–a common practice.
What was most shocking in the Abramson story is she is simply out at the paper–done, dismissed, literally erased. Sulzberger had her name deleted from the masthead Wednesday afternoon, requested she not be present when the change was announced and she is gone, five years before mandatory retirement, unlike any other previous executive editor, including her predecessor, who have been given columnist positions.
Yet it’s difficult to see where there was reason for action other than Baquet’s and Thompson’s disapproval of her. Under her direction the NYT took on serious stories other news organizations would not touch. In the years she ran the paper, the NYT won eight Pulitzer Prizes–more than the previous executive editor had garnered between 2003 and 2011. She was given full credit in journalistic circles for the direction she had taken the paper and for her work in both print and online. NPR’s David Folkenflik sent out a series of tweets alluding to the problem being Sulzberger didn’t like the high profile Abramson had achieved through her work.
In a prepared statement released by the paper, Abramson said, "I’ve loved my run at The Times. I got to work with the best journalists in the world doing so much stand-up journalism." She asserted her appointment of many senior female editors was one of her achievements at the paper.
In an interview with Out magazine in April, Abramson mentioned she’d gotten a tattoo of the gothic NYT’s T on her back soon after she joined the paper and that the institution was one she "revered" and that had "shaped her."
According to the NYT article, Jane Mayer, a journalist at the New Yorker and a friend of Abramson with whom she co-wrote a book on Clarence Thomas, said, "I know that Jill cares passionately about great journalism and The New York Times. She works incredibly hard, holds everyone including herself to the highest standards, and is a forceful and fearless advocate. Not everyone is going to like that, but it’s what makes her one of the most talented journalists of our times."
We may never know the full story of what transpired: According to the NYT, both Abramson and Baquet agreed not to speak to the media about Abramson’s dismissal under terms set by Sulzberger.That Abramson created a great deal of change at the NYT during her tenure as executive editor is undeniable and that clearly chafed the men around her. Women in the NYT newsroom were decidedly upset by the news and the ripple effect caused Abramson to trend on Twitter and the New York Times Company stock to plummet Wednesday afternoon, dropping a full 5%.
In yet another irony, which points to the suddenness of the dismissal, according to the NYT, Abramson was scheduled to head an annual meeting slated for today and tomorrow for the paper’s senior executives. Her talk was titled, "Our Evolving Newsroom." The meeting, not surprisingly, has been canceled.
Undeniable in the Abramson story is the hypocrisy involved. Under Abramson the NYT championed the nationwide issue of closing the gender pay gap, noting it was "not just a women’s issue, but a societal and moral one." The paper also asserted that the gender wage gap continues to be a problem that "comes from differences within occupations, not between them," that "persists even in workplaces committed to gender equality."
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Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer. She has won the NLGJA, the Keystone Award, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She won the 2013 Society of Professional Journalists Award for Enterprise/Investigative Reporting. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and a contributing editor for Curve magazine, Curve digital and Lambda Literary Review. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times. She is the author and editor of nearly 30 books including the award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Restricted Access: Lesbians on Disability. Her collection, From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth won the 2012 Moonbeam Award for Cultural/Historical Fiction. Her Y/A novel, Cutting will be published in fall 2014. @VABVOX