New York Times fiasco won’t go away with Jill Abramson’s departure

The firing of New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson has roiled an industry struggling to finds its way in changing times. Younger female journalists looked to her as a role model.

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times/AP
In this 2011 photo, managing editor Dean Baquet, executive editor Jill Abramson, center, and former executive editor Bill Keller, pose for a photo at the New York Times. The Times announced this week that Abramson is being replaced by Baquet after two and a half years on the job.

The firing of New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson continues to rock the nation’s newspaper of record as well as an industry struggling to find its way through changing times – socially as well as technologically.

At the New York Times this week, writers, editors, and the newspaper’s spokeswoman faced a firestorm of questions, allegations, and heavily opinionated commentary about the circumstances and background of Ms. Abramson’s departure. Responses, it was clear, were as much for staff as for the rest of a media world fascinated by – in some cases gloating over –  the Times’s difficulties.

The newspaper’s management continues to vigorously deny that Abramson’s swift departure after a relatively short time on the job (less than three years) had anything to do with pay disparity or a sexist reaction to her style of management.

Meeting with the staff, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. praised Ms. Abramson’s talents and accomplishments as a journalist, but he said “we had an issue with management in the newsroom.”

There are strong differences of opinion about that.

“As an observer, I don’t think this decision had much to do with Ms. Abramson being ‘pushy,’ which is gender-related code for strong and opinionated,” wrote Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, who analyzes the newspaper’s accomplishments and failures with considerable independence. “It was more that she was undiplomatic and less than judicious in some management and personnel decisions. That matters when you’re supervising 1,250 people in a business being forced to reinvent itself.”

In a follow-up piece, the Times quoted Kate Zernike, a metro reporter who has been on staff for 14 years: “The rush to call this sexism is predictable, but unfortunate — and wrong. I think the truth, like it usually is, was more complicated. There are certainly gender issues at the paper, but I don’t think it’s right to see Jill’s departure as an expression of them.”

But in a piece headlined “Editing While Female: Field notes from one of journalism’s most dangerous jobs,” Politico magazine editor Susan Glasser writes that Abramson was “unceremoniously dumped,” that Ms. Glasser “had watched with dismay over the last year as any legitimate questions about her tenure were subordinated to tiresome, trite and utterly sexist debates over her ‘temperament’ and whether it was the right one for a newsroom leader.”

“Even the defense – and there were many defenders – was being waged on … the terrain of women’s personal qualities and whether they truly belong in the public positions that remain a man’s unquestioned privilege,” Glasser writes. “It was predictably awful, and I was not in the least bit surprised. Because this has happened to just about every woman I know who has dared to take up a highly visible leadership position in our great but troubled news organizations.”

The circumstances under which Abramson left the Times – abruptly and said by Mr. Sulzberger to be because of her management style – has been particularly difficult for younger women in journalism, many of whom looked up to a women they saw as a strong role model.

“Abramson’s presence allowed a new generation of women at the Times to begin to see a possible future in leadership at the paper, but it also helped disrupt the paper’s masculine approach to news coverage—and allowed the paper to benefit from scoops it wouldn’t otherwise get,” Amanda Hess wrote in Slate. “Under Abramson, some of the paper’s biggest stories over the past three years were narrated by women.”

Reporting turmoil in one's own ranks is always agonizing for writers and editors, whether it’s correcting serious mistakes in print or broadcast, conceding plagiarism, or acknowledging major in-house disputes.

This was true for the Christian Science Monitor in 1988 when the newspaper’s three senior editors – including editor Kay Fanning, a prominent figure in American journalism and the first woman to serve as president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors – resigned in protest over budget and staffing issues, which rocked the newsroom as well as the church organization which publishes the Monitor.

So far, Abramson has not said anything publicly about her rough departure from the institution she so revered that she got a tattoo of the Times’s stylized “T” logo.

On Monday, she is scheduled to give the commencement address at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC.

“I cannot think of a better message for the Class of 2014 than that of resilience,” said Wake Forest President Nathan Hatch. “Jill Abramson’s accomplishments speak for themselves, and I am confident she will have an inspiring and timely message for our graduates.”

It’s likely to be one of the most closely watched commencement addresses of 2014.

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