Jill Abramson tells Wake Forest graduates to ‘show what you are made of’

Ousted New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson spoke of her firing during a commencement speech at Wake Forest University, saying it's more important to learn to handle setbacks than successes. (Wake Forest University)

Ousted New York Times editor Jill Abramson told graduates here to “show what you are made of” when facing adversity.

“I’m talking to anyone who’s been dumped,” Abramson said, to knowing chuckles from the large crowd at Wake Forest University on Monday morning.

The night before her speech, Abramson said, a student asked whether she would have her now-famous tattoo of the Times’s iconic script T logo removed. “Not a chance!” she said.

The announcement of Abramson’s appearance had electrified the small group of journalism students at this picturesque Southern campus. Annie Johnson, a reporter and editor at the student newspaper who graduated Monday, fired out an e-mail to everyone she knows.

“We’ve been fan-girling hard!” said Johnson, a 22-year-old communications major and journalism minor from Cape Cod, who will be interning this summer at NPR in Washington.

During her commencement speech at Wake Forest University, former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson said that despite her firing, she will not be removing her commemorative tattoo of the paper's signature "T." (Wake Forest University)

Abramson’s wrenching departure from the Times transformed what might have been a languid and routine event at this campus on the former estate of tobacco baron R.J. Reynolds. More than 30 news organizations scrambled for credentials, and reporters crowded into the first row in front of a large yellow-and-white-striped tent where Abramson delivered her remarks. At a typical Wake Forest graduation, no more than five or six media organizations show up. But Abramson’s emergence as a symbol of the challenges faced by women in the workplace — and as an object of scorn by her detractors — turned the graduation into something of a happening. An estimated crowd of 12,000, including 1,800 graduates, crammed into Hearn Plaza in the heart of this campus on a brisk, bright morning to hear Abramson’s remarks, which were her first since being fired Wednesday as the top editor of the Times.

“What’s next for me?” she said. “I don’t know. So I’m in exactly the same boat as many of you.”

Noting the large news-media gathering, Abramson cracked at one point, “I’m impressed that your achievements have attracted so much media attention.”

It was Abramson’s ascent to one of the highest posts in American journalism — more than her stunning fall — that captured the imagination of students here. “She’s been so successful — that gives me hope that there’s a bright future ahead,” said Hilary Burns, a 21-year-old communications major who has already landed her first job as a reporter at an online start-up, Bizwomen.

Burns looks to Abramson as a role model. Her first instinct — even as she invokes a budding reporter’s yen to learn more about Abramson’s muddled departure from the Times — is to defend the former editor. “It isn’t really fair that she’s being painted as a bully,” said Burns, who is the former editor in chief of the student newspaper, the Old Gold & Black. “Editors have to be firm. . . . Journalism is a high-pressure industry. You have to stand your ground.”

The students here have followed each twist in the Abramson saga with an acute hunger for more. They aren’t surprised that Abramson’s critics would paint her as brusque and difficult. They sniff a double standard at work. “Journalism tends to be a male-dominated industry,” Annie Johnson said matter-of-factly.

But the reports that Abramson may have been paid less than her male predecessors — reports that have been disputed by top Times executives — worry them. “I really hope that’s not true,” said Burns, a communications major and journalism minor who graduated Monday.

Both Burns and Johnson have interned at news organizations, and neither thought they were treated any differently because they are women. But Johnson says that the predominance of men in journalism’s highest posts has discouraged some of her female friends from even considering entering the profession. “They don’t see it as a viable path,” she said.

Abramson was derided as “pushy” by some of her critics. Her supporters have adopted the word as a badge of pride, and the pushy hashtag has taken off on Twitter. But Burns would rather not be known as pushy. She’d prefer to have an alternative, and more nuanced, brand: “Assertive but fair and respectful.”

Friends of Abramson said that she has declined to follow the chatter about her firing on social media and is relying on a close friend, New Yorker writer Jane Mayer, to filter it for her. (Mayer and Abramson co-wrote a book about the Anita Hill episode, “Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas.”)

Some students had been itching for her to deliver a rant. In the moments before Abramson spoke, Timothy Bishop — a 22-year-old health and exercise science major — grinned wolfishly and declared: “I want her to be polarizing!” But Abramson only alluded to the drama of the past few days, saying, “Sure, losing a job you love hurts.” She needled the large press contingent on hand for the talk, quipping about the “small media circus following me” and insisting that the focus should be on the graduates.

Much of that media circus had wandered off once Abramson finished her remarks. But Abramson remained on stage, smiling demurely and shaking hands with graduates as they received their diplomas. Except, that is, for a lanky grad who reached her right hand high into the air as she approached the diminutive Abramson. The former editor didn’t miss a beat, giving the graduate a high-five. And the students at the foot of the stage whooped.

Abramson said her heroes include the late Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and former New York Times reporter Nan Robertson, author of “The Girls in the Balcony,” a 1992 book about the struggle for gender equality at the Times. Both faced discrimination, she said, in a “male-dominated” industry. She also had to do some quick editing of her address over the past several days. A Wake Forest official said the original draft of her speech — submitted before her firing — focused on the importance of media freedom, a topic she barely touched on Monday.

Paul Farhi contributed to this report.

Manuel Roig-Franzia is a writer in The Washington Post’s Style section. His long-form articles span a broad range of subjects, including politics, power and the culture of Washington, as well as profiling major political figures and authors.
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