Not just another commencement speech: Ousted NYT editor to speak at Wake Forest


Jill Abramson attends a Wired business conference at the Museum of Jewish Heritage on May 7, 2013, in New York. (Brad Barket/Getty Images For Wired)

As graduation speeches go, this one figures to be a little awkward.

Jill Abramson, the ousted executive editor of the New York Times, will address the graduating class of Wake Forest University Monday morning in what will be her first public comments since her very public blowup with the newspaper last week.

Abramson agreed to give the commencement address at the Winston-Salem, N.C., school several months before the public knew how dicey things had become at the office.

She and school officials conferred Thursday, the day after her firing, and both sides reaffirmed that she was still on to address 1,900 graduates and about 10,000 of their family members and friends, said Wake Forest spokeswoman Katie Neal.

“I cannot think of a better message for the Class of 2014 than that of resilience,” the school’s president, Nathan Hatch, said in a statement late last week. “I am confident she will have an inspiring and timely message for our graduates.”

And so an otherwise routine commencement speech will take on a somewhat different coloration, with C-SPAN beaming it to a national audience.

Abramson has maintained her silence as her public relations battle with the Times has devolved into two competing narratives. Abramson’s supporters say she was a victim of sexist treatment by the Times and its chairman, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. Sulzberger’s camp has denied this, saying instead that Abramson alienated the newspaper’s journalists and mismanaged the newspaper at a time of wrenching change in the news business.

Harsh critique

Sulzberger escalated the rhetoric over the weekend, issuing a statement that was a harsh critique of the woman he chose to run the paper in 2011.

Sulzberger said he had “heard repeatedly from her newsroom colleagues, women and men, about 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. I discussed these issues with Jill herself several times and warned her that, unless they were addressed, she risked losing the trust of both masthead and newsroom. She acknowledged that there were issues and agreed to try to overcome them. We all wanted her to succeed. It became clear, however, that the gap was too big to bridge and ultimately I concluded that she had lost the support of her masthead colleagues and could not win it back.”

Sulzberger vowed to close the door on further comments when he disclosed Abramson’s firing to a shocked newsroom Wednesday. At the time, he said, “You will understand that there is nothing more I am going to say about this, but I want to assure all of you that there is nothing more at issue here.”

Since then, he has made two more statements, both disputing published reports that Abramson’s compensation was less than that of her male predecessor, Bill Keller. The stories, published by the New Yorker based on interviews with unidentified people close to Abramson, have ratcheted up the competing sexism vs. incompetence angles.

Sources of friction

Sulzberger said Thursday that Abramson’s compensation this year is about 10 percent more than Keller received in 2011, his last year as editor (the New Yorker said Keller received $559,000 in base salary that year, and that Abramson started off at a lower figure, $475,000, which was eventually raised to $525,000 this year after she protested). The Times has not released specific year-by-year figures or a breakdown of how each editor was compensated, making comparisons of salaries and bonuses by year difficult, but has said Abramson’s total pay was “broadly comparable” to that of her predecessors.

“Equal pay for women is an important issue in our country, one that the New York Times often covers,” Sulzberger said last week. “But it doesn’t help to advance the goal of pay equality to cite the case of a female executive whose compensation was not in fact unequal.”

According to one executive who said he was familiar with the discussions, Sulzberger was displeased with Abramson over several decisions, including her hiring of a lawyer to press the salary issue. He told her earlier this month that he was intent on replacing her with her top deputy, managing editor Dean Baquet. To ease the transition and help Abramson save face, he offered to announce that she was taking early retirement. Abramson rejected this, insisting that her firing be a matter of public record, the executive said.

Baquet, who was named Abramson’s successor Wednesday, had complained to Sulzberger about being blindsided by Abramson’s decision to hire another journalist — the Guardian’s Janine Gibson — as a managing editor in charge of the newspaper’s digital reporting, a position that would have made her Baquet’s equal, people at the Times said. Gibson eventually turned down the job.

The attempt to hire Gibson points to what the New Yorker reported Sunday as another possible cause for Abramson’s dismissal: that she had been dishonest with Sulzberger and Times Co. chief executive Mark Thompson. The magazine said Abramson told Sulzberger that she had alerted Baquet about Gibson’s hiring when, in fact, she had not. Gibson believed her hiring had been cleared with all the key players, based on what Abramson told her, according to the article.

A Times spokeswoman would only say that Sulzberger “spoke specifically in his statement [Saturday] about what led him to dismiss” Abramson.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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