The New York Times just won four Pulitzer Prizes, the third-largest haul in its 162-year history, so you’d expect its executive editor to be rolling in accolades. Instead, she has been rewarded with a profile depicting her as an unpleasant, difficult woman in an article published yesterday on Politico.
The piece, written by media reporter Dylan Byers, was meant to be a deep, revealing portrait of a storied paper in the thick of turmoil due to a lack of leadership under Abramson.
Instead, the article reads like a sexist fairy tale—one in which the poor, dejected employees of the Times complain that their boss knows what she wants, asks them to do their jobs without sugarcoating, and does so brusquely because she’s busy. Most important, Byers reports, their feelings are hurt by this behavior.
These points were made by some dozen unnamed former and current editorial staffers, according to Byers—but interestingly, none of the anonymous sources’ genders are revealed, perhaps because that would have been too revealing. (Full disclosure: I am an occasional contributor to the Times, but have never worked with Abramson. Byers didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
Just how sexist is their depiction of Abramson? Byers says staffers categorize her as “stubborn and condescending”; she can seem “disengaged and uncaring”; “she’s not approachable” or “naturally charismatic”; and most damning of all, “staffers question ... whether she has the temperament to lead the paper.”
Translation: Jill Abramson is a shrill, hysteria-fueled bitch. Why isn’t she handing out cookies at the Page One meeting?
This is despite the fact that Dean Baquet, Abramson’s No. 2 and one of Byers’s few named sources, essentially undercuts the entire thesis of the article, saying: “I think there’s a really easy caricature that some people have bought into, of the bitchy woman character and the guy who is sort of calmer. That, I think, is a little bit of an unfair caricature.”
Nonetheless, Byers soldiers on, depicting her more than once as “uncaring.” Because the top editor at the top newspaper in the world should offer a shoulder to cry on and a soft touch, above all else.
The only thing missing from this article is a description of Abramson’s hair or fashion sense. (Though it does note that she has a tattoo—and that factoid is helpfully paired with the phrase “tough as nails.”)
Conversely, Baquet, the one who actually admitted to Byers that he once had a “tantrum” over a conversation about the paper’s news coverage, is painted as the guy everyone turns to because he “likes being liked” and “provided reassurance.”
Also, there’s a story about him punching a wall. But Byers writes that “even this anecdote is recalled fondly.”
The most depressing thing about this article is that we’ve been here before, many, many times, with regard to stories about women in power. Nearly every time a woman reaches the pinnacle of her career, there is an accompanying piece about how hard she is to work with, how bitchy she is, or how she’s not in keeping with the old-fashioned notions that women are lovely and amazing.
The adjectives used to describe these women— “difficult,” “condescending,” “shrill”—have sexism baked right into them. Male executives like Steve Jobs, on the other hand, can be seen as complete assholes—but brilliant assholes. Jobs was repeatedly described in deeply unpleasant terms, but because he was a man, he was a dazzling visionary who was just doing his job. Forbes even ran an article titled “Steve Jobs Was a Jerk. Good for Him.”
Nearly every female publisher or editor or newswoman, from Janice Min to Bonnie Fuller to Nikki Finke to Katie Couric, has been subjected on one level or another to stories that depict them as difficult witches, not as being the top of their field. They just can’t win; if they dare show a feminine, amiable side, they are seen as “too soft” and somehow lacking in gravitas.
Lean In, the book by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, discusses this phenomenon in depth. Sandberg recounts an experiment conducted at Columbia Business School that switched the name of a female entrepreneur for a male entrepreneur and asked the students to describe what they thought of the person they read about. It was the exact same story, Sandberg noted, except that Heidi was “seen as selfish,” and “not the sort of person you would want to hire or work for.” Howard, on the other hand—the same person, in reality—“came across as a more appealing colleague.”
Judith Regan, the shrewd, controversial, and enormously successful publisher of Regan Books, was described in many profiles in an unsavory light. It’s possible that she was actually an unsavory person, but it’s the way that she’s written about that’s unfair and sexist.
Example. In a Vanity Fair piece titled “The Trouble With Judith,” Michael Wolff wrote: “Anybody who’s ever come in contact with her has been exposed to the bilious, vitriolic, manic, gynecological, anti-everybody-and-every-propriety conversation—if not awed by it.“
Sandberg notes that female politicians have long been subject to this type of off-putting analysis. Indeed, the death of Margaret Thatcher, the formidable, history-making prime minister of the United Kingdom, was celebrated with the song “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead,” which reached No. 2 on the British charts.
Hillary Clinton, before she had an emotional breakdown on the campaign trail in 2008, was skewered by the press as being icy and cold and unfriendly and unrelatable. Because, again, the leader of the free world is supposed to be warm and affectionate, not smart or competent or sharp or decisive. (See: Dubya, Reagan.) Later, the sexist coverage of Clinton was considered one of the principal reasons she lost the primary to President Obama.
Google “sexist articles about Hillary Clinton” and you will find innumerable examples. Google “sexist articles about Bill Clinton” and you will be searching in the weeds. (Indeed, as recently as this January a New York Post cover showed Hillary—then enjoying record-high favorability ratings as secretary of State—shouting at Benghazi hearings over a tiny picture of her husband. The headline: “No Wonder Bill’s Afraid.”)
Is it really possible that the treatment of Abramson and other powerful women can be boiled down to a nursery-school rhyme, the one where little boys are made of “slugs and snails and puppy-dogs’ tales” and little girls are made of “sugar and spice and everything nice?”
Judging from Byers’s profile, yes, it is.