New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. has just suffered a miserable week nursing a PR black eye after his May 14 firing of executive editor Jill Abramson.
He hardly began the current week looking much better, evading media reporters at a gala dinner Monday night for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Things seemed to deteriorate as the week unfolded, culminating in what several communications professionals and crisis managers said was Sulzberger’s ill-advised decision to sit down on Sunday with Vanity Fair for his first press interview since Abramson’s sacking.
The story, posted Tuesday morning, effectively undid every bit of good will Sulzberger had tried to generate the night before during a brief speech in which he heaped undiluted praise on his fired editor, calling Abramson “a powerful and outspoken advocate for a free press” and expressing gratitude “for her many contributions to Times journalism.”
Sulzberger’s VF interview—surprising in that he gave the exclusive not to his own paper (which has been aggressively covering the corporate melodrama) but to a rival news outlet—was very off-message. In an effort at do-it-yourself damage control, he elaborated on Abramson’s alleged flaws as a manager, blamed her for the unseemly public manner of her defenestration, defended himself against charges of sexism regarding Abramson’s compensation, expressed implied regret that back in 2011, he had chosen Abramson over Dean Baquet (who has the job now), and resisted taking responsibility for his own errors in judgment.
“The question is, am I doing a bad job of picking leaders for The New York Times? I don’t think so,” he argued, notwithstanding that this is Sulzberger’s second executive-editor pick in the past decade to flame out—the first being Howell Raines, who in 2003 self-immolated over the Jayson Blair scandal. “Everyone who pretends they have a 100 percent success rate isn’t trying hard enough.” He added: “Am I happy we’re in this place? No. Did we lead us there? No.”
Abramson, reached by The Daily Beast, declined to comment. Aside from a combative photo of herself sporting boxing gloves—released on Instagram by her daughter, medical doctor Cornelia Griggs, and inevitably ending up on the cover of Friday’s New York Post—she has displayed the sort of restraint that has so far eluded Sulzberger.
“She’s been very smart, basically saying nothing, while her daughter Instagrams out a clever photo. So far Jill Abramson has been winning the PR war by a lot.”
On the other hand, Abramson’s loyalists and confidants have been actively leaking information about the alleged salary disparities between Abramson and her male peers—principally to The New Yorker’s media correspondent, Ken Auletta. Auletta’s stories have provoked Sulzberger, who initially vowed not to discuss Abramson’s dismissal further, to write several stunning staff memos concerning her compensation and alleged managerial failings.
His VF interview “was a disaster,” said a prominent public relations executive who, not wishing to alienate the publisher/chairman of The New York Times Co., spoke on condition of anonymity. “I can’t understand what possessed him to sit down with her”—a reference to the magazine’s ace media correspondent, Sarah Ellison. “My sympathy for him arises from the fact that her contempt for him was so palpable…I suspect most readers will take the piece at face value and come away persuaded that Abramson was unfairly ditched by a sexist, privileged dilettante who doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
Los Angeles PR maven Howard Bragman, vice chairman of Reputation.com, agreed, saying, “Does he read Vanity Fair? Did he think it could have been good for him?” He added: “You don’t have to participate in your own hanging. You don’t have to build the gallows…One is better served to follow my motto that silence is golden and duct tape is silver”—duct tape appended to a mouth, that is. “But that’s the hardest thing to do for intelligent, articulate people who have a public profile.”
Ellison told The Daily Beast: “I’ll let the piece speak for itself.” Eileen Murphy, the Times Co.’s vice president of corporate communications, likewise declined to address the interview or the kibitzing of various PR practitioners who spoke to The Daily Beast about the Times’s alleged mishandling of the Abramson affair. “I can understand the impulse to go through this exercise because it is interesting,” Murphy said, “but it’s ultimately meaningless in the absence of the full facts surrounding a very complex situation.”
The irony of Sulzberger’s behavior at Monday’s dinner, where he was on hand to accept a First Amendment Award on behalf of the the Times, was either delicious or acrid, depending on one’s point of view. On the very day that Abramson delivered a rousing commencement address on the theme of “resilience” at Wake Forest University, bringing thousands of cheering graduates to their feet, Sulzberger spent the cocktail hour at the Hotel Pierre dodging journalists who wanted to ask about the Times’s high-level personnel snafu.
At one point, confronted by annoying media reporters, the 62-year-old Sulzberger—scion of the family that has controlled the Times since 1896—put his index finger to his lips in the universal sign of “stifle yourself.”
Sulzberger—who graduated from Tufts University in 1974 and later studied management at Harvard Business School—toiled as a reporter at the Raleigh, N.C., Times, and then as a London correspondent for the Associated Press, before joining the family business in 1978 as a Washington correspondent. Taking over from his father Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger—who died in 2012—“Pinch” (a nickname he detests) was named publisher in 1992 and chairman of the Times Co. in 1997, the same year Abramson became the Times’s Washington bureau chief after a stellar career at The Wall Street Journal.
“Known for years as ‘Young Arthur,’ ” Ellison wrote in Tuesday’s story, “he fought to be taken seriously. In contrast to his late father, who held the publisher position before him, he is the opposite of reserved. He can be casual and goofy in unexpected circumstances, and though he does it less than he used to, he has had a tendency to make jokes that few others find funny.”
Bragman, for one, expressed sympathy for Sulzberger’s PR predicament, saying, “Because it’s a personnel issue, it’s very difficult to talk about, because you set yourself up for a lawsuit.” He expressed surprise that the publisher and his top personnel executive, Sulzberger cousin Michael Golden, couldn’t have orchestrated a dignified departure for Abramson “with a seven-figure severance payout and a good confidentiality agreement… I have to believe there’s a number that would have gotten her attention.” Even a multimillion-dollar payoff would have been a bargain compared to the reputational damage the Times has suffered, Bragman suggested.
Another factor is that it’s nearly impossible to impose message-discipline on any news organization, especially the Times, which is a roiling cauldron of gossip and leaks. While the Times’s Murphy is known as a savvy communications executive, she isn’t in the driver’s seat; her boss has a mind of his own and the storyline is uncontrollable. “Journalists should not run damage-control operations,” Bragman said.
A third PR executive—who spoke under the same anonymity conditions as the first, for similar reasons—said Team Abramson has deftly handled an impossibly complicated situation with clutter-cutting simplicity. “I am so confused by what actually happened,” this executive said. “Was there a pay disparity? Who’s shading the truth? She’s been very smart, basically saying nothing, while her daughter Instagrams out a clever photo. That was not done by a daughter just having fun. That was a calculated move to feed the beast…So far Jill Abramson has been winning the PR war by a lot.”
It’s unclear how long Abramson’s PR advantage will last. In recent days, The New Yorker’s Auletta, Politico’s Dylan Byers, and New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait have been focused on a fresh narrative favorable to Sulzberger—that Abramson was allegedly caught “lying” to Sulzberger, as Auletta put it, about whether she had kept then-managing editor Baquet in the loop about her plans to hire Janine Gibson, U.S. editor in chief of Britain’s The Guardian, as Baquet’s co-equal managing editor for digital journalism. Baquet’s bitter complaint to Sulzberger that he was blindsided, and his threat to leave the Times, apparently sealed Abramson’s fate.
Whether any of this really matters is also a valid question. “The industry is obsessed with itself,” said digital media investor Kenneth Lerer, a former PR executive who helped build the Huffington Post into a major force and, as a partner in Lerer Ventures, has Buzzfeed in his portfolio. “But there is nothing like journalists writing about other journalists. It’s a sport unto itself.”