Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Firing of Jill Abramson

She was the executive editor of the New York Times, from September, 2011 until now.  That is one of the top jobs in journalism on our puny planet, and Abramson was the first woman in that job.  But it's crucial to remember that one man truly rules the New York Times:   publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.. 

Sulzberger gets what Sulzberger wants, in other words.  And what he wanted was to fire Abramson, in a way which has rarely done before.  I'd call the manner of her going abruptrude and punitive.

But then Abramson has a reputation of being mercurial, pushy, a bad manager.  Not At All Nice.  And Sulzberger never got on with her.

Now it may well be the case that Abramson is an unusually rude person, an unusually bad manager, an unusually uncooperative peg in the vast machinery of the newspaper.  It may even be the case that she would have been fired "unceremoniously" had she been a good journalist with the same credentials but called Jack Abramson.  But the history of firings at New York Times suggests that even pretty bad editors didn't get fired just so speedily and abruptly.  Take the case of Howell Raines:

The last editor to be forced out by the Times, Howell Raines, was someone who, like Abramson, did not always enjoy a fuzzy reputation within the newsroom. “Howell ruled by fear,” was how one source described his tenure in 2003. Raines was forced out after it was discovered that one of his reporter protégées, Jayson Blair, had been fabricating stories. But even in the midst of the tumult over Blair, Sulzberger remained affectionate toward Raines, at one point handing him a stuffed moose. When Raines finally left the paper, it was with an address to the staff; his wife was present. In the paper’s report about the departures of Raines and his deputy Gerald Boyd, Sulzberger was quoted as wanting to “applaud Howell and Gerald for putting the interests of this newspaper…above their own.”
Observing the sharp contrast between this kinder, gentler transition and the cold glee with which Abramson was tossed on her ass today made me hope that eventually we will learn that she was stealing from the company cash register. Because that’s pretty much the only crime I can think of that would merit as swift and brutal an exit for a woman who—good or bad at her job, or, more likely, like most bosses in the world, some combination of the two—represented an undeniably historic first in journalism and at The New York Times.

What makes drawing conclusions from these comparisons so difficult is Arthur Sulzberger's power.  He has the power of firing and hiring.  Maybe he just hated Abramson's guts and that's all there is to this story?  Of course the next layer of the onion requiring peeling is why he hated her so much, and that takes us to her bad management style yet her clear journalistic excellence etcetera, and the fact of her gender.

Whether her gender had anything to do with the reasons for her firing is an open question.  What is not an open question is that Sulzberger didn't care how it would look to abruptly fire the first ever female executive editor of the Times after a reign of only few years, without any backup plan that would have taken the probable reactions into account.  Reactions to these early news about the firing:

As with any such upheaval, there’s a history behind it. Several weeks ago, I’m told, Abramson discovered that her pay and her pension benefits as both executive editor and, before that, as managing editor, were considerably less than the pay and pension benefits of Bill Keller, the male editor whom she replaced in both jobs. “She confronted the top brass,” one close associate said, and this may have fed into the management’s narrative that she was “pushy,” a characterization that, for many, has an inescapably gendered aspect.
Those quotes are unsourced, and the Times has since argued that Abramson's pay was not substantively less than that paid to other people earlier in her positions.  But whatever the truth about all this might be, it's important to note that "pushy" is not really an adjective one would apply to executive editors of the male kind.  They are expected to be pushy!  They are expected to make tough decisions which make some people very angry!   Whether the expectations are different when the executive editor is female is an important question to ponder.

Sulzberger dips his own toe into the gender debates in this quote:

Sulzberger gave the same vague reasoning for the change that would be relayed in a company memo and at a full newsroom meeting shortly thereafter—that the decision had to do with Abramson's newsroom management.
Not everyone was buying it. When Sulzberger said he was sure it "doesn't come as a surprise to you," video editor Bruce Headlam spoke up in Abramson's defense, according to a person who was present. "It does come as a surprise to me," the source recalls him saying.
Two other editors also voiced their concerns, sources with knowledge of the meeting told Capital. National editor Alison Mithchell suggested that Abramson's firing wouldn't sit well with a broad swath of female Times journalists who saw her as a role model. (Abramson became the Times' first female executive editor in 2011, after Bill Keller stepped down.) Assistant managing editor Susan Chira seconded that notion.
Our source who was in the room characterzed Sulzberger's response thusly: When women get to top management positions, they are sometimes fired, just as men are.

And in this second-hand rumor:

Bloomberg's Edmund Lee adds a new tidbit: "She had taken to giving interviews and appearing on panels without consulting the company, a move that rankled Sulzberger, according to two people."
To assess that statement (assuming the bit about the rankling is true) from a gender point of view we would need to know whether all prior executive editors of the Times had to clear their interviews and panel appearances with Sulzberger or whether this rule was a new one.

Looking at this firing from the outside is only as good as the sources I can find.  This means that I cannot tell what role Abramson's gender played in all this, if it did play a role.  I can only note that most of us expect different behavior from women than from men (women should be nicer, men are better leaders), and perhaps those vague and fuzzy expectations affected the way Abramson's management style was assessed.  Or perhaps not.  It could be that Sulzberger and Abramson were fire and water and hated each other deeply and fervently.

But what I can tell is that something is awry in the New York Times if people really thought that nobody would question the role of gender when the first female executive editor of the Times is tossed out like old garbage after less than three years at the helm, given how previous editors were fired.