“The extraordinary showdown between the judge and his accuser has already affected politics on almost every level, from the personal to the Presidential; but the mystery of who really was telling the truth has endured,” Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer, who were then reporters at the Wall Street Journal, wrote in a 1993 review of David Brock’s “The Real Anita Hill,” a takedown of the woman who had accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. “Unlike a court of law, the book provides no opportunity to face the accuser, since much of Brock’s most damning material is in the form of quotes from anonymous sources. Nor is there any representation for the accused.”
I was reminded of Abramson’s reporting on Hill and Thomas last year when I watched a new documentary, “Anita: Speaking Truth to Power,” for which both Abramson and Mayer were interviewed. The women eventually wrote a book of their own, “Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas.”
And I thought about this episode in Abramson’s career again yesterday, when the New York Times announced that she was out as the paper’s first female executive editor, to be replaced by Dean Baquet, the first African American to hold the job.
Her departure may have been surprising to those on the outside, but perhaps not to Abramson herself. Politico interviewed a number of current and former Times employees last spring for a piece criticizing her management style. The Times reported that Abramson had employed a consultant to help address those concerns before she was dismissed. There were debates about digital strategy, too. Whatever the complaints, ad sales were up at the paper this year, Abramson was reportedly trying to hire a managing editor for digital and the Times debuted an elegant redesign.
Her conflicts at the paper seem to predate her tenure at the top job there. Gabriel Sherman reported that Abramson was so offended by the way Arthur Sulzberger Jr. treated her in a 2010 meeting that she considered leaving the Times. Last year, Abramson said that she had contemplated going elsewhere while serving as Washington bureau chief under executive editor Howell Raines. Maybe Abramson never should have taken the top job in the first place, the whole situation a case of Leaning In to an impossible situation.
Were the claims that Abramson was difficult warranted? Sexism? Certainly some of Abramson’s issues with her bosses seemed to have to do with gender. Ken Auletta reported in the New Yorker that Abramson had discovered that she was being paid less than her predecessor, Bill Keller, and talked to a lawyer about it. Sherman also noted that Sulzberger was displeased by the attention Abramson garnered as the first woman executive editor.
Abramson also mentored and promoted many women during her tenure as executive editor. As Amanda Hess, who spoke to a number of those young women, wrote, “regardless of her idiosyncrasies and her faults—all bosses have those—Abramson made a big dent in the Times’ masculine culture, and even women at the Times who didn’t personally like Abramson respected her for that service.” That is the sort of impact that can paint a target on a leader’s back, centered on Abramson’s famous Times tattoo.
Whatever the reasons for her firing, Abramson now finds herself in a position that has some things in common with another woman she covered more than 20 years ago.
Unlike Anita Hill, Abramson is at least getting a severance package after getting fired in a manner that Rebecca Traister at the New Republic calls “among the most harsh and humiliating I’ve ever seen play out in the media’s recent history.” I certainly hope she got enough money to have some fun or to start a new publication with radically different norms than the ones at the Times. It is true that being fired in a singularly embarrassing way is not the same thing as being sexually harassed, put through congressional hearings and then derided as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.”
But like Hill before her, Abramson is suffering severe damage to her reputation that may be deeply rooted in gender norms. Those narratives are wickedly hard to dislodge. There are still plenty of people who still believe that Hill is some sort of deranged wronged woman, thanks to the efforts of conservative writers, media outlets and Thomas himself. Whether Abramson made management mistakes that would be unforgivable in a person of either gender, or whether she was judged more harshly as a woman (her replacement has a history of wall-punching, apparently), the label that she is difficult or shrill will be difficult to dislodge.
Hill had defenders like Abramson in the press. But she also told her own story, writing about her experiences in a 1998 book and speaking at length for “Anita: Speaking Truth to Power.” It seems that Abramson will not have that option. According to a Times story on her dismissal, the agreement she reached with the paper regarding her termination bars both sides from going into detail about the firing.
Abramson’s decision that it made sense to strike this deal should not dissuade other journalists from digging in to what really happened to her and to the paper she stewarded, much as Abramson reported out Hill’s story so many years ago. That would be the best possible gesture of respect to Abramson’s journalism and to the values she embodied as a reporter and at the head of the Times. Abramson does not need anyone to coddle her. But all of us who care about journalism at every level, from digital strategies to gender parity, deserve the sort of truth that Abramson tried to provide to Hill and to the American public.