L'affaire Abramson

05.18.14

The Hypocrisy Behind The New York Times’s Abrupt Decapitation of Jill Abramson

It’s sad and sickening to see The New York Times stoop to the kind of obfuscation and evasiveness it usually calls out in others.

Like many others, I revere The New York Times, even if I was once attacked on the front page, in an article predicting that John Kerry had no chance to win the 2004 Democratic nomination now that I was his campaign strategist.

The paper's coverage is indispensable—from the far reaches of the world to bureaus around the nation, it is nearly unique among today's print media. For example, I now live in Los Angeles, and the Times, as  I've noted before, covers this place with more insight and creativity than the local prints. This New York paper gets L.A., and explores and reveals it in a fresh, fittingly baroque, and often unpredictable way.

I also read and occasionally argue with the columnists who light up its op-ed page. The editorials themselves, mostly in my view spot-on, don't just flog opinions, but advance persuasive and sometimes eloquent briefs on the big issues—say, pay equity. And at this moment there's the rub.

It is plain that the abruptly decapitated executive editor Jill Abramson, the first woman ever to hold that position, was paid less than her male predecessor in one job and her male successor and subordinates in another. The New Yorker's Ken Auletta, the nation's foremost chronicler of the media, had the hard numbers almost before Abramson left the building. For example, her starting salary as executive editor was more than $100,000 lower than the salary of the man before her—and precisely $100,000 lower when she had earlier become Washington bureau chief. So with its top editorial executive, the Times did as it did, not as admonished others to do.

The paper's wobbly spin—that her compensation wasn't "significantly less" than the man she succeeded as executive editor—is simply incredible. A hundred thousand dollars and more in base pay is significant, and it betrays a plutocratic mentality—of the kind that Times editorials usually denounce—to imply that the sum is pocket change.

Then there's the assertion that you should count stock and pension benefits. No one can predict in advance what stock options will be worth. Why would they justify a lower base salary for a woman? And Abramson, who had far fewer years at the Times than  her male predecessor as executive editor, almost certainly had far less in her pension account. Why bring up pensions at all—except as a smokescreen, and a transparent one at that?

Nor does the suggestion that her justified complaints about pay inequity played no part in her ouster hold much printer's ink. And even if that was true, it wouldn't vindicate a disparity that plainly affected her and presumably other women at the paper.

Such evasions and obfuscations are the kind of "polspeak" that generally provokes the Times to lean on the subject of a story, to push more persistently, and puncture the spin. When I was involved in campaigns, you always knew, when Abramson called, that she wouldn't let you get away with a polite brush-off or a contrived feint. She was a relentless reporter.

Of course, that relates to the other rotation of the spin herethat she was difficult and demanding. I've heard similar complaints for years about powerful women like Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Mikulski,  a friend and a client when I was a political consultant. Qualities that earn praise  for men in office—being tough, holding subordinates and colleagues alike to high standards—invite blame for women in a culture that still frequently sees and prefers them as housewives, secretaries, or lucky professionals who should nonetheless know their place. Feinstein and Mikulski—and notably, also Hillary Clinton—are so accomplished precisely  because they are focused, assertive, and challenging. So is Abramson, and that could be one reason why the Times won eight Pulitzer Prizes during her brief and successful tenure.

The paper's CEO was importuning her to commit to "some more years" as executive editor just 12 days before she was dismissed. His request hardly sustains the notion that he was locked in irrepressible conflict with her, or that her search for a second managing editor for the digital side of the Times—an effort he was involved in—was the final straw. The man who was then the sole managing editor and is now her successor, Dean Baquet, apparently objected to the idea. But the episode can hardly be a rationale for firing someone who had rightly and discreetly protested the pay disparity she had discovered. Couldn't they all have just talked over their disagreement?

I don't know Jill Abramson all that well. She can be acerbic; I've witnessed it. In a man, that would be called witty. She can ask hard questions and she doesn't fall for soft answers. We like that in presidents; how about in newspaper editors? She's not satisfied with assuming that the old ways of doing things will continue to do. So she made changes that have transformed the Times online; is that what her critics mean when they allege she was disruptive?

It is regrettable that the elevation of Baquet, the first African-American to edit the paper, resulted from the ouster of a talented woman treated unfairly and even brutally. If some other organization acted in the same manner, the Times would be a difficult and demanding interlocutor, disdainful of both the secrecy behind the decision and cover stories as thin as tissue paper.

The Abramson passage isn't worthy of a newspaper that is also a great and national public trust. It's news that isn't at all fit to print.