Gray Lady Up: Jill Abramson’s Reign Begins at the Times

The Old Boy network of the New York Times has given way to gynocracy, we learn in a New Yorker profile of the paper’s new editor, Jill Abramson. The piece is intended to be friendly — but nevertheless makes for a fascinating portrait of the infighting, hypocrisy, and anti-meritocracy that prevails at the Paper of Record.


It appears that men who work at the Times are not yet required to wear under their suits hair shirts emblazoned with the image of Hillary Clinton, nor are they made to begin each day by genuflecting at a portrait of Gloria Steinem while solemnly intoning the words, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” But Abramson’s reign has just begun.

Everyone at the Times is very, very excited that they have a woman boss for the first time in the paper’s history. Fully 41 percent of the managers at the Times were women even before Abramson took over — in an age when legions of professional women abandon their careers to raise families, and many others forsake high-stress work in favor of less-demanding or part-time jobs — and being female apparently earns you permanent Special Person status at the Times. On her first day on the job, Abramson is seen reading a congratulatory note from a fellow editor that all but says, “Don’t forget when you’re handing out the promotions that I’m a supportive woman who fully supports you, my respected fellow woman!”

Abramson got her job after Maureen Dowd asked her whether she knew any “sensational women” (not people) who should be hired by the Times. Abramson (who then worked for the Wall Street Journal) shot back, “Yeah, me!” At one point, when she was considering leaving the Times for the Washington Post, she got a call from the CEO of the Times — also a woman — who told her, “Over my dead body do you leave this paper! If I don’t support people in this organization, women in this organization, I’m not doing my job.” One wonders how many men-people in the organization get desperate phone calls from the CEO. When the paper’s publisher Arthur Sulzberger contemplated a new editor, the only other choice he seriously considered was an African-American, Dean Baquet, who is now Abramson’s no. 2. Sulzberger’s desire to “see an African-American lead the paper with the first woman editor,” says an executive at the paper, “was unspoken. Arthur wants that to be part of his legacy, and Jill is smart enough to know that.”


The profile goes on to paint Abramson as rude, condescending, and disinclined to listen to anyone else’s views. Even her fans, reports Ken Auletta, the author of the New Yorker piece, “say that she could be short with people, curtly cutting them off in mid-sentence. Those who failed to meet her exacting standards were often berated, sometimes publicly.”

And that’s just what her “most devoted supporters” say. As for her critics, they “thought she played favorites and was mercurial.” Why ever would they say that? Could it be because, as Auletta writes, “many women at the Times came to see her as their advocate” or because “when women received promotions, Abramson often hosted a celebratory party for them. These celebrations got to be so frequent, the European correspondent Suzanne Daley joked, ‘it almost became, ‘Oh my God, another party!’” Men who got promoted? Well, no parties but they were welcome to deal with their guilt silently, knowing they had probably cost some deserving sister the job.

Abramson has also “tried to navigate between goals that sometimes collided — seeking more diversity and trying to promote a new generation of editors, yet not depriving the paper of those with experience and wisdom.” Yes, this is an either/or situation: you either hire and promote based purely on merit, or you don’t. There can be little doubt about which method currently is in favor at the Times. One male correspondent told Auletta, “She plays favorites, it is said. Especially for women.” Hope you didn’t use the company email system to say so, fella! Twenty newsroom jobs are about to be axed.


Ah, but noticing the sharp edges of a woman is itself sexist, a sure sign of a double standard, is it not? Not really. Howell Raines, the editor from 2001-2003, was fired, in part because of his insistently obnoxious personality and in part because of his disastrous decision to hire and prominently place an inexperienced and not obviously qualified young reporter, Jayson Blair, whose name is now synonymous with fictitious reportage. Abramson’s role in publishing some stories whose veracity has also been questioned — the Judith Miller WMD reports on Iraq — is disputed. She says that Miller, though a member of the Washington bureau Abramson managed, was allowed to operate outside normal channels.

One member of the chipper, sunny family that is the New York Times compared Raines and Abramson this way: “Unlike Howell, she is not mean. Jill is a nice, caring person. … She doesn’t enjoy torturing people. So much of her negativity is unintended.” So she tortures people only by accident, or with regret.

Another victim of torture at the Times is fact, which increasingly gets thrown in the iron maiden so that more space can be given to opinion. In an essay on recent campaign books such as Game Change, Abramson derides what she calls the “attitude-driven ‘reports’ on cable TV,” meaning Fox News. But Auletta drily remarks that “The Times today offers opinion on its editorial page, in business-section columns, in political stories only sometimes marked ‘News Analysis,’ and in the Sunday Review, which falls under the editorial-page editor” but used to be part of the news department. The editorial-page editor, Andrew Rosenthal, openly worries that “the news report can be undermined, particularly in the highly partisan, accusatory time we live in, if we mingle news and opinion.” Abramson’s predecessor, Bill Keller, suggests a solution: Even more opinion! Keller says the paper should “get beyond commodity news … to add meaning to it. To help readers organize the information into understanding.”


As for whether Abramson agrees with this view, Auletta drops a hint that the critique of liberal bias “will not be lessened by the elevation of a woman brought up in a liberal-Democratic household on the West Side of Manhattan who worked for liberal Southern Democrats and wrote a book asserting that Clarence Thomas probably lied.” In other words, what Abramson called “attitude-driven ‘reports’” are here to stay.


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