Jill Abramson overflowed with praise when the New York Times promoted her to its top editorial position. “In my house growing up, the Times substituted for religion,” she said in a June 2011 interview with her own paper. “If the Times said it, it was the absolute truth.”
Abramson probably meant to sound humble, but she instead came across as arrogant, like a new pope boasting about his infallibility. Someone at the Times must’ve been embarrassed, because the quotes appeared only online in the initial report of Abramson’s appointment. They had been excised by the time the next day’s paper rolled off the presses. For Times religionists, that presumably created a theological quandary: If the Times says it only on the website, is it still ex cathedra?
The print version of the story included a less newsworthy, if still somewhat odd, quote: “We are held together by our passion for our work, our friendship and our deep belief in the mission and indispensability of the Times,” Abramson said. “I look forward to working with all of you to seize our future. In this thrilling and challenging transition, we will cross to safety together.”
That turned out to be far from the absolute truth. Less than three years later, Abramson was excommunicated—fired from the paper this May by publisher Arthur “Pinch” Sulzberger, Jr. and replaced by managing editor Dean Baquet. Evidently, however, she remained a true believer. The week after her firing became public, she delivered a commencement address at Wake Forest University. She told graduates a student had asked if she planned to remove the tattoo on her back, the gothic “T” from the Times logo. “Not a chance!” she answered.
Although the dramatic manner of Abramson’s ouster made it a shock to Times-watchers, the turmoil didn’t come out of nowhere. A year earlier, Politico’s Dylan Byers had reported that “Abramson is already on the verge of losing the support of the newsroom. Staffers commend her skills and her experience but question whether she has the temperament to lead the paper.” Byers and his sources unpacked their adjectives, describing Abramson’s leadership style as “stubborn,” “condescending,” “disengaged,” “uncaring,” and “demoralizing.”
Most of Byers’s newsroom sources were anonymous, but one notably was on the record:
Baquet, who spoke positively of Abramson and of their relationship, acknowledged these frustrations but didn’t lend them much credence.
“I think there’s a really easy caricature that some people have bought into, of the bitchy woman character and the guy [Baquet himself] who is sort of calmer,” he said. “That, I think, is a little bit of an unfair caricature.”
In fact there was nothing positive about that quote. Baquet was using an ancient rhetorical device, paralipsis—saying something by asserting one’s intention not to say it. Cicero, in his 56 B.C. speech in defense of Marcus Caelius Rufus, drew attention to the crimes of Clodia, Caelius’ spurned lover, by pretending to forgive them: “I now forget your wrongs, Clodia, I set aside the memory of my pains.” Similarly, some 2,000 years later Baquet presented an utterly vicious description of Abramson (to whom, for good measure, he contrasted himself favorably) by claiming to disavow it. After his erstwhile rival’s defeat this year, Baquet displayed his rhetorical versatility by damning her with faint praise. The Times itself reported that he “praised Ms. Abramson for teaching him ‘the value of great ambition.’”
According to Byers’s 2013 story, there had long been bad blood between Abramson and Baquet. Byers began with an anecdote in which she summoned Baquet to her office to complain that the paper’s news coverage wasn’t “buzzy” enough. “A debate ensued, which gave way to an argument. Minutes later, Baquet burst out of Abramson’s office, slammed his hand against a wall and stormed out of the newsroom.”
This May 17, three days after Abramson’s firing became public, Sulzberger put out a statement attributing his decision to “a series of issues, including arbitrary decision-making, a failure to consult and bring colleagues with her, inadequate communication and the public mistreatment of colleagues.”
Byers reported that the triggering event was another spat with Baquet. Abramson intended to hire Janine Gibson, an editor at London’s Guardian, as a co-managing editor—that is, Baquet’s equal in the Times hierarchy. According to Byers’s sources, “Abramson led both Sulzberger and [Times Co. CEO Mark] Thompson to believe that she had consulted with other newsroom leaders about her decision” to offer Gibson the job. But Baquet learned of the offer, after the fact, from Gibson.
He felt sandbagged. “The next day, he went into Sulzberger’s office and, according to the sources, told him he could not work in an environment where such important decisions were being made without his knowledge,” Byers reported. “Sulzberger was shocked: As far as he knew, Baquet was not only aware of the offer, but supported it.” Sulzberger concluded that Abramson had been dishonest, according to Byers’s sources. He sacked her the same week.
But there was another version of the story, which Abramson’s supporters told to Ken Auletta of The New Yorker, who reported it on the magazine’s website. Auletta’s sources said that a few weeks before the firing, Abramson learned her pay and pension were “considerably less” than those of Bill Keller, her predecessor, who was male. One unnamed Abramson associate told Auletta that “she had a lawyer make polite inquiries about the pay and pension disparities, which set them [Sulzberger and Thompson] off.”
In a later post, Auletta put numbers behind the claim:
As executive editor, Abramson’s starting salary in 2011 was $475,000, compared to Keller’s salary that year, $559,000. Her salary was raised to $503,000, and—only after she protested—was raised again to $525,000. She learned that her salary as managing editor, $398,000, was less than that of the male managing editor for news operations, John Geddes. She also learned that her salary as Washington bureau chief, from 2000 to 2003, was a hundred thousand dollars less than that of her successor in that position, Phil Taubman.
Sulzberger denied—first through a spokeswoman, then in his own May 17 statement—that Abramson had been the victim of sex discrimination. As he put it in the statement:
We are very proud of our record of gender equality at The New York Times. Many of our key leaders—both in the newsroom and on the business side—are women. So too are many of our rising stars. They do not look for special treatment, but expect to be treated with the same respect as their male colleagues. For that reason they want to be judged fairly and objectively on their performance. That is what happened in the case of Jill.
It’s possible both that Abramson was fired on the merits and that there were good reasons Keller and the other men earned more than she did. (For one thing, Keller had thirteen years’ seniority on her.) But as conservative critics noted with glee, Times reporters and editorialists seldom acknowledge such nuances in their crusades for “equal pay.”
One might charitably observe that this proves the paper is maintaining its strict separation between editorial and business operations, or “church and state” as they call them at the Times. The uncharitable view is that hypocritical moralizing is an occupational hazard of the clergy, even—perhaps especially—of the clergy in a substitute religion.