At the New York Times building in Manhattan two days ago, the entire staff was assembled at a meeting in front of publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. The ashen-faced Sulzberger then made the announcement that would shake the underpinnings loose from the surface of our world: Jill Abramson, the executive editor of the Times, had been fired.
The news settled slowly over America’s journalists, creeping into their bones and leaving them in a state of flabbergasted paralysis. For years they’d covered the Great Recession in which 8.7 million people lost their jobs. Now it had finally happened to someone important.
Then the paralysis wore off, and with a great lurch the news media belched out story after story. Politico ran four pieces on the Abramson firing in the first twenty-four hours. The Washington Post ran ten, first with a headline screaming that Abramson was “out as executive editor,” then with a separate headline clarifying that she was “‘unexpectedly’ out as executive editor.” This was followed by a piece at Salon.com purporting to explain what Politico’s Abramson reporting “really reveals.” And of course, there was the obligatory New Republic piece chalking the whole thing up to malignant sexism.
Regarding the calendar shift from JA to AJA, the media divided into two camps. One claimed that Abramson had been fired because she discovered she wasn’t being paid as much as her male counterparts and raised a fuss. The other advanced the narrative that Abramson was a despotic presence in the newsroom and was hated by her employees.
Whatever the case, the press did find consensus on the urgency to report on l’affaire Abramson before the facts were known. Why was she fired? We don’t know, but it had to be sexism. Or her attitude. It was all reminiscent of the editor William Leggett in Gore Vidal’s novel Burr: “None of this is true, but Leggett feels that to be excitingly wrong in general is better than to be dully accurate in particular. That is why he is such an effective journalist.”
Leggett was based in New York, but his intellectual descendants today mostly reside in Washington, D.C. The histrionics over Abramson’s firing—and honestly, sarcasm aside, does anyone…bloody…care??—are symptoms of a deeper disease with the Washington media. At a time of gripping recession and social change, Washington’s hacks and scribblers are thoroughly entranced by themselves. The Beltway media has become a narcissistic solar system, with social media orbiting blogs orbiting websites orbiting newspapers, but never expanding outwards into the great unknown.
When the Graham family sold the Washington Post to Jeff Bezos last year, the political media was thrown into fits of hysteria. The worst came from the usually sober Post writer Ruth Marcus, who penned a column called “The Day Our Earth Stood Still.” Then, deciding that movie reference wasn’t unhinged enough, she continued, “Don Graham’s decision to sell the Washington Post was his reverse Sophie’s Choice moment.” The recession shuttered 224,000 businesses in its first two years, but the Post gets sold to a different owner and suddenly only references to Nazi movies can describe the madness.
This navel-gazing might seem harmless, but it can affect our public policy—especially since the gentlest prod of austerity against Washington naturally sends the Washington media into bouts of hysteria.
Look at the sequester. The hysteria machine spent months freaking out about uninspected food and long airport lines and furloughs as far as the eye could see. Today we know sequestration resulted in exactly one federal lay-off and that economic GDP growth roared from 2.5 percent to 4.1 percent as its ax was supposedly falling.
Look at last year’s government shutdown. Washington’s town criers were in apoplexy predicting economic doom. Instead, to quote CNN Money, “Job growth unexpectedly surged in October, even as the federal government closed its doors for 16 days.”
What if another state had this sort of proximity to the chattering classes? What if instead of Washington, the political media was based primarily in, say, West Virginia? What if every time the EPA slapped a new regulation on coal plants or mountaintop mining, thousands of journalist pens rose from their caps in protest?
At least then we might have a decent energy policy.
So while the story of Jill Abramson getting fired might be annoying, at least it’s not adversely affecting anyone’s life—save for Abramson, of course. And maybe her loss does have a deeper social dimension. We don’t have all the facts, but it’s certainly possible that the Sulzberger men’s club fired her for sexist reasons. But right now potential sexism is incidental to the tornado of media coverage, which exists for one reason: Jill Abramson is a member of the political class and therefore merits attention.
In 1989 Tom Wolfe advised his fellow novelists to leave the office and “head out into this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hog-stomping Baroque country of ours and reclaim it as literary property.” It’s time our journalists did the same thing.