Questions linger after Jill Abramson’s dismissal from Times

Wednesday marked Jill Abramson's abrupt dismissal from her post as executive editor of the New York Times. Here is a brief overview of what you should know about her career. (Sarah Parnass and Jacques Ledbetter/The Washington Post)

There were disputes and tensions. There were differences over strategy. But hours after the first woman to run the New York Times’ vaunted newsroom was unceremoniously shown the door, much of the discussion came down to a single issue: Sexism.

Was Jill Abramson, the now-former executive editor of the Times, a victim of a double standard? Did Abramson lose her job because she was some of the things — tough, imperious, aloof — that men in management are allowed to be, and often rewarded for, but for which women are punished? Was Abramson taken down for, among other things, having the gall to seek compensation equal to her male predecessors?

Twitter and the blogosphere rang with accusations and denunciations to that effect on Wednesday and Thursday. “What happened to Jill Abramson shows everything that sucks about being a woman leader,” headlined the news “explainer” site Vox.com. The New Republic played out the sexual politics of l’affaire Abramson with a piece that carried the subhead, “Trying to explain a singularly humiliating firing.”

The theme bubbled briefly to the surface on Wednesday in the Times newsroom, too. Stunned reporters, who had gathered to learn news they didn’t see coming about Abramson, at one point asked publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. if Abramson was being treated differently than a man.

No, Sulzberger said, adding a just-business coda: As women reach the top, they’ll get fired just as men have been. And with that Sulzberger, along with Abramson, declined to comment further about the circumstances of her departure, leaving a vacuum that quickly filled with suspicions of unequal treatment.

Effective immediately, managing editor Dean Baquet will become executive editor of the New York Times, replacing Jill Abramson, the first woman ever to occupy the position. (Reuters)

Times journalists say Abramson, 60, could indeed be difficult to work with. She could also be absent from the newsroom, with frequent travels to speaking engagements and such events as the Academy Awards and the South by Southwest festival.

But Abramson was also generally considered among the best in her profession; The Washington Post tried to hire her for a senior editing job while she ran the Times’ Washington bureau between 2000 and 2003. Abramson eventually declined the offer.

Despite clashing with Sulzberger and her chief deputy, Dean Baquet, 57, who succeeded her, Abramson amassed an impressive record during her 32-month tenure as the Times’ editor. The newspaper won eight Pulitzer Prizes under her watch, including four last year and two last month. Abramson also pushed more women to the top of the paper’s masthead, with half of the senior positions now occupied by women.

In a posting on Thursday, Margaret Sullivan, the newspaper’s public editor, called Abramson’s term “short but meaningful.” She wrote that “there was no scandal on her watch. She moved the journalism forward into the digital realm. . . . She defended press rights and stood up for her reporters, most notably with China coverage, staying the course when the going got tough” as Chinese officials threatened the visas of Times journalists in retaliation for unflattering stories.

Sullivan disputed the sexism angle, writing, “As an observer, I don’t think this decision had much to do with Ms. Abramson being ‘pushy,’ which is gender-related code for strong and opinionated. It was more that she was undiplomatic and less than judicious in some management and personnel decisions. That matters when you’re supervising 1,250 people in a business being forced to reinvent itself.”

One story that greatly elevated the sexism theme was the New Yorker magazine’s report that Abramson had complained to Sulzberger in recent weeks about being paid less than her predecessor, Bill Keller.

The paper’s corporate staff almost immediately disputed the story, which was widely reported. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) even used it as a peg for promoting equal-pay legislation on Thursday. Said Reid, “If [the story is] true — and I don’t know that it is — it’s a perfect example that is true why we should pass fair paycheck equities — fairness.”

Sulzberger, who had otherwise ended his comments about Abramson, felt compelled to respond in a staff memo: “It is simply not true that Jill’s compensation was significantly less than her predecessors,” he wrote. “Her pay is comparable to that of earlier executive editors. In fact, in 2013, her last full year in the role, her total compensation package was more than 10% higher” than Keller’s in his last year as editor, 2010. (Abramson has not spoken publicly since her dismissal.)

Still, some Times reporters noted one unequal element of Abramson’s departure: its abrupt nature. She did not attend Wednesday’s staff meeting revealing her firing; her name was scrubbed from the Times masthead within minutes of the news of her leaving. Her Times e-mail address was cut off Thursday morning. One reporter recounted passing her newsroom desk late Wednesday and noticing that her reading glasses were still there.

The Times’ own news story about Abramson offered not a single positive comment from her colleagues. “It’s astonishing,” said a former Times journalist, who asked not to be named because he wants to maintain a relationship with the paper. “There are 1,000 people in that newsroom. She couldn’t have had 1,000 enemies. It’s sad.”

By contrast, Howell Raines — the Times editor fired by Sulzberger in 2003 amid a scandal over plagiarized articles and questions over the Times’ coverage of the Bush administration’s claims before the war in Iraq — was ushered out with a newsroom ceremony in which he was accompanied by his wife.

The fact that Abramson’s personality became an issue at all in her demise is unusual, said Claire Shipman, the veteran ABC News reporter and co-author of a new book, “The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self Assurance — What Women Should Know.” Men in prominent positions, she notes, tend to lose their jobs based on a lack of success, and less so on their personal shortcomings.

“There’s ample research that women are routinely penalized for the same behavior that men display,” Shipman said. “Women can’t be ‘irascible’ or ‘crotchety,’ but there’s a subtle respect for those things in a man. The fact that Jill had so many extraordinary successes as a journalist makes us all want an explanation for what happened.”

Amy Joyce contributed to this report.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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