Sad Spectacle

Can We Trust The New York Times After the Abramson Debacle?

The paper and its former executive editor have been spinning furiously since her abrupt dismissal, and the paper has been left diminished by the spectacle.

The hot mess that is the divorce between The New York Times and now-former executive editor Jill Abramson is a classic case of he said, she said.

The “he” is Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. “She,” of course, is Ms. Abramson. And if you’ve watched cable news or been on Twitter in the past 72 hours, it is abundantly clear she’s winning the spin war. But it’s unsettling that the most esteemed newspaper in the world and the woman who once ran it are spinning so furiously. And that casts a new light on the way The New York Times goes about the business of reporting the news on a day-to-day basis.

The weeds grow thick in this particular swamp, so let’s quickly recap: Abramson is fired abruptly Wednesday as the paper’s first female executive editor after just three years on the job. The New Yorker's Ken Auletta reports, through an anonymous source, that she was axed for hiring a lawyer to address a wage gap between her and her male predecessor. Cable news, naturally, pounces. Sulzberger and the Times, now reduced to ashes in the PR battle, attempt to save face with a counteroffensive, and leaks about Abramson’s “pushy” management style and covert attempts to hire a second managing editor ensue.

But with the first impression on this story favorable to Abramson, Sulzberger and his allies already seem to have lost. Still, some writers and editors at the Times offer their two cents anyway:

“One telling fact: the women of the Times would revolt en masse if they thought gender played any role at all in Abramson’s firing,” tweets deputy international editor Lydia Polgreen.

“Almost nobody I have talked to, male or female, thinks her gender or pay were significant factors,” reporter Ravi Somaiya tweets.

So who’s lying? Who’s telling the truth? Almost every member of the impossibly pretentious Manhattan media circuit claims to have the answer, but no one really seems certain. What we do know is that the spin room has now moved way beyond post-presidential debate coverage. Here we have Abramson setting the tone in the media on equal pay. We have Sulzberger ironically, and by some accounts deliciously, lamenting media coverage of the dismissal—because he wasn’t smart enough to get ahead of the story when the ax was dropped—and subsequently responding by smearing Abramson’s management style and credibility, which readers at home couldn’t care less about. Abramson wins simply by being first with her side of the story and offering up something far sexier for the talking heads to sink their teeth into.

But for a regular reader of The New York Times, considered the apex of print journalism, this whole drama, complete with finger pointing and accusations without hard evidence, may be more than a bit disconcerting. Abramson, who was at the helm as the paper won eight Pulitzers in three years, once ultimately decided what was printed or rejected, separated fact from fiction. Her journalism credentials are off the charts, and the quality of the paper’s content appears to have been stellar, so many at home are probably asking why the paper can’t just have worked this out internally. Why try to ruin the woman’s reputation in such spectacularly poor fashion? Why stoop to intentional leaks and anonymous sources to push a defensive narrative?

If you believe Abramson’s account, The New York Times has advocated equal pay with 90 stories in three years but did not extend that courtesy to its most powerful employee.

If the Times or Abramson, or both, is fibbing here, the credibility of the newspaper of record is now suspect. The Times may never be able to do another story on equal pay—no matter how the Abramson saga shakes out—without enduring a public execution from the social media mob for even daring to go there. If another high-profile female executive is suddenly terminated, the Times’ reporting of that story may be met with cynicism based on the way it handled the Abramson episode.

If we don’t trust what The New York Times says about itself, can we believe what it says about the rest of the world it reports on?

“A divorce is like an amputation: you survive it, but there’s less of you,” the great (albeit relatively unknown) essayist Margaret Atwood wrote.

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In this breakup, it’s just another sad case of he said, she said, with The New York Times as the punchline—coming out less than it was before.

And in the process, there’s also less trust in a once-great newspaper from readers who thought the Grey Lady was above this sort of thing.