Jill Abramson brought a lawyer to a salary fight, and other reasons why the Times hasn’t put this conflict to bed

 


New reports suggest that disputes over New York Times former executive editor Jill Abramson’s salary and tensions with then-managing editor Dean Baquet contributed to her being unexpectedly fired this week. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times via AP)

Almost overnight, the New York Times’ troubles following the unceremonious firing of former executive editor Jill Abramson got a lot worse.

New Yorker reporter Ken Auletta’s extensive follow-up report on what led to Abramson’s unexpected departure from the paper exposes egos, salaries and the private conversations among the paper’s most senior leaders.

Despite the Times’ insistence that she was fired because of a “management” issue in the newsroom, two days later, everyone is still talking about whether the real problem was sexism.

Pay: The elephant in the room

Auletta was the first to surface reports that Abramson’s compensation contributed to her firing, which the Times vehemently denied — even saying that her pay was “comparable” to her predecessor. So was it?

Without knowing much of anything about pensions or other forms of compensation like stock options, it seems pretty clear that Abramson’s salary was objectively lower than  her predecessors’. According to Auletta, her starting salary in 2011 was $475,000 compared to her predecessor Bill Keller’s salary that year, which was $559,000. It was subsequently raised twice, at her insistence.

But perhaps the more shocking element of these claims is that Auletta’s source or sources pointed to more systemic differences between Abramson’s pay and her male counterparts. For example, as managing editor, her salary was less than her counterpart, managing editor for news operations, John Geddes, Auletta asserts.

Now, these are admittedly leaner times for legacy media organizations such as the Times, but consider this final bombshell on the issue of pay: As Washington bureau chief from 2000 to 2003, Abramson’s salary was $100,000 less than the man who replaced her, Phil Taubman, Auletta says.

Again, New York Times spokesman Eileen Murphy characterizes this a “broadly comparable.”

‘Part of a pattern’

Concern about her salary led Abramson to hire legal aid, but that proved to be a provocative act.

In the tomes that have been written about the source of the gender pay gap and how to rectify it, one of the consistent pieces of advice is that women should start by asking for more.

In Abramson’s case, the decision to ask for more, with the help of a lawyer, was viewed as “combative,” Auletta says. And it exacerbated the already frayed relationships between her  and the paper’s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

“Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Times, argued that there was no real compensation gap, but conceded to me that ‘this incident was a contributing factor’ to the firing of Abramson, because ‘it was part of a pattern,’ “Auletta wrote.

(New York Post/Newseum)
(New York Post/Newseum)

Whether it was “part of a pattern” that led to her being fired or “part of a pattern” of behavior that caused frustration seems to matter greatly to the Times, because Murphy later disputed the quote:

“I said to you that the issue of bringing a lawyer in was part of a pattern that caused frustration. I NEVER said that it was part of a pattern that led to her firing because that is just not true,” she said.

Consulting Baquet or undermining him?

“In recent weeks, these people said, Mr. Baquet had become angered over a decision by Ms. Abramson to make a job offer to a senior editor from the Guardian, Janine Gibson, and install her alongside him in a co-managing editor position without consulting him,” wrote David Carr and Ravi Somaiya in the New York Times’ accounting of the conflict. It escalated the conflict between them and rose to the attention of Mr. Sulzberger.”

That characterization isn’t wrong, but Auletta suggests that it’s incomplete.

Baquet wasn’t in the dark that Abramson sought to hire Gibson, but he felt undermined when he learned (and not from Abramson herself) that the position would be comparable to his.

In a dinner meeting with Sulzberger on May 8, he made his displeasure known.

“He conveyed to him, I’m told, that he felt undermined by Abramson’s failure to let him know where Gibson would be in the Times hierarchy,” Auletta said.

Sulzberger’s buyer’s remorse

In a 2011 profile of Abramson, Auletta noted that, according to a senior editor at the Times, Sulzberger had a deep conviction that appointing the paper’s first African American editor should be a “part of his legacy.”

It appears that with all the acrimony that her well-known management style apparently caused, Sulzberger had seen enough.

“Sulzberger wondered if he should have chosen Baquet instead,” Auletta writes.

As publisher, Sulzberger is essentially both judge and jury, and in the end he did choose Baquet.

A plea to stay longer

Was Baquet’s dissatisfaction over Abramson’s handling of the managing editor position, bitterness over a salary dispute and her abrasive management style enough to put an end to Abramson’s already short tenure as the Times’ executive editor?

Perhaps.

But Auletta suggests that her firing might have come as a surprise to even more senior Times executives.

In their feverish negotiations with the Guardian’s Gibson about the managing editor position, she made it clear to Times CEO Mark Thompson that she would need to be reassured that Abramson would be signing up for “some more years” at the helm of the Times.

That was on April 28. Thompson wrote to Abramson that day: “I told her I was doing my best to persuade you that you should!”

On May 8, Gibson turned down the Times’ offer. And on May 14, Abramson’s tenure came to an abrupt end.

Abby Phillip is a general assignment national reporter for the Washington Post. She can be reached at abby.phillip@washpost.com. On Twitter: @abbydphillip
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