Talk about turnaround. Just hours after Jill Abramson’s firing last Wednesday from the New York Times sent the media world into shock spasms, the New Yorker’s Ken Auletta came up with quite a scoop:
BREAKING: Ken Auletta on how questions about pay inequality may have contributed to Jill Abramson’s firing http://t.co/C6hgKJsP3i
— The New Yorker (@NewYorker) May 14, 2014
That story bore a towering headline: “WHY JILL ABRAMSON WAS FIRED.”
In the piece, Auletta noted what a cruel fate had befallen Abramson, and when seeking to account for it, his first explanation related to the pay-equity matter that has gotten so much airtime since. Here’s exactly how the piece presented the matter:
As with any such upheaval, there’s a history behind it. Several weeks ago, I’m told, Abramson discovered that her pay and her pension benefits as both executive editor and, before that, as managing editor were considerably less than the pay and pension benefits of Bill Keller, the male editor whom she replaced in both jobs. “She confronted the top brass,” one close associate said, and this may have fed into the management’s narrative that she was “pushy,” a characterization that, for many, has an inescapably gendered aspect.
That scoop resulted from an agility with which the New Yorker isn’t often associated. Auletta tells the Erik Wemple Blog that he was as stunned as anyone else by the news of Abramson’s ouster. He quickly reached out to friends and associates of Abramson’s. “I went to them and it wasn’t easy,” says Auletta, noting that he had not even an “inkling” of what had been afoot in the executive recesses of the New York Times. Obstacles notwithstanding, he cranked out the pay story, which also featured other details on Abramson’s break from the paper’s brass.
Did the New York Times have a chance to rebut the allegations about pay? “No,” says New York Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy. Though she’s quoted in what appears to be the first version of the story as saying that Abramson’s compensation was “directly comparable” to that of predecessor Bill Keller, Murphy insists she didn’t have access to the relevant information, on demand on a Wednesday evening.
In addition to the Keller-Abramson salary allegation, Auletta let fly a second pay-equity strand, this one attributed to that “third associate”: Here’s how it read in the original version:
A third associate told me, “She found out that a former deputy managing editor”—a man—“made more money than she did” while she was managing editor. “She had a lawyer make polite inquiries about the pay and pension disparities, which set them off.”
Here’s how that passage reads in the current version of the story:
A third associate told me, “She found out that a former deputy managing editor”—a man—“made more money than she did” while she was managing editor. [Update: The man in question, John Geddes, was in fact the managing editor of news operations.] “She had a lawyer make polite inquiries about the pay and pension disparities, which set them off.”
That mistake Auletta owns, conceding that the person he’d initially identified as a subordinate of Abramson’s was in fact an equal. As to why this correction is labeled an “update,” Auletta says, “That’s a stylistic thing that they do,” he says, referring to the Web side of the New Yorker.
My, how a post by Ken Auletta on the New Yorker brings out the labor lawyer in our country. Overnight, everyone was talking about sexism, gender equity and all the rest. One outlet addressed the possibility that Abramson might just have a retaliation cause of action on her hands.
Last Thursday — the day after — the New York Times pulled all kinds of data on pay and compensation, a research effort that fed into a staff memo from Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. assuring that there was no gender-compensation issue at play. The document read, in part:
It is simply not true that Jill’s compensation was significantly less than her predecessors. 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 that of her predecessor, Bill Keller, in his last full year as Executive Editor, which was 2010. It was also higher than his total compensation in any previous year.
Meanwhile, Auletta was pushing numbers onto the web:
As executive editor, Abramson’s starting salary in 2011 was $475,000, compared to Keller’s salary that year, $559,000. Her salary was raised to $503,000, and—only after she protested—was raised again to $525,000. She learned that her salary as managing editor, $398,000, was less than that of the male managing editor for news operations, John Geddes. She also learned that her salary as Washington bureau chief, from 2000 to 2003, was a hundred thousand dollars less than that of her successor in that position, Phil Taubman.
In this data-driven tit-for-tat game, the New York Times on Saturday argued its case yet again, issuing a release saying, in part, that “Jill’s pay package was comparable with Bill Keller’s; in fact, by her last full year as executive editor, it was more than 10% higher than his.” This time, the denials about pay problems came with pointed, on-the-record claims about Abramson’s management style — you know, the sharp-elbowed, nasty stuff that everyone’s always talking about: “During her tenure, I 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.”
This, from a fellow who earlier in the week had said that replacing Abramson would improve certain aspects of newsroom leadership and beyond that, “there is nothing more I am going to say about this.”
Auletta won’t assign conclusive meaning to the newspaper’s characterization of relative compensation. He says he has asked for a breakdown of the total compensation package in percentages for salary, bonus and various incentives. Until all those are on the table for both Abramson and her predecessor, there’s no way of telling whether Abramson’s gripe had any merit. “They declined,” says Auletta about the response to his deep-dive request.
Yet Auletta argues that the merit of Abramson’s complaint is almost a distraction from the story of her fate at the New York Times. “Even if you assume that the Times was correct — that total compensation is comparable — the fact was that Jill Abramson was unhappy,” he says. “She hired a lawyer” to look into her pay-equity issue. As contained in Auletta’s first piece on the topic, the news of Abramson’s pay dissatisfaction drove a million Web hits, a lot of whom “were women,” says the reporter. “You can’t confuse what I wrote with the reaction of some feminists.”
On Monday’s edition of the “Today” show, Auletta had this to say about the case:
“I don’t think this is a case of sexism.” -Ken Auletta talks to @SavannahGuthrie about Jill Abramson
— TODAY (@TODAYshow) May 19, 2014
Was this an instance of Auletta walking back his earlier reporting on the case? “I don’t think it is at all,” says the New Yorker reporter. “I didn’t make the accusation” of sexism. “I don’t have a dog in this fight.”
The Times’s Murphy lays the whole thing a bit closer to Auletta’s digital trail: “Ken’s original story is what started the narrative” of pay equity, she says. “We had to then correct the record more directly.” She says she has “given up reading” Auletta’s coverage, which has to be a rhetorical point.
In his coverage, Auletta mangled the fact about Abramson’s managing editor pay-equity situation, as well as another one about whether Phil Taubman preceded or succeeded Abramson as the Washington bureau chief (he succeeded her). Where were the vaunted New Yorker fact-checkers for those slip-ups? Auletta says that Web-only copy is indeed fact-checked at the New Yorker, “but not as extensively, obviously,” as print copy. “You get into problem of speed — there will be more mistakes because of that,” says Auletta.
Spurred on by an earlier story on Saturday by Politico’s Dylan Byers, Auletta yesterday zeroed in on the proximate cause for Abramson’s dismissal. Both reporters reached the same conclusion about another hazy matter central to the Abramson-Sulzberger alienation: That Abramson had kept Managing Editor Dean Baquet in the dark about her idea to place a co-managing editor alongside Baquet to handle the burgeoning digital portfolio at the Times. Specifically, sources in both stories say that Abramson didn’t fully apprise Baquet of the job description envisioned for the Guardian’s Janine Gibson, who was interviewing for the position — and that Abramson deceived Sulzberger when she told him that Baquet was fully looped in on the proceedings. The prevailing story is that Baquet didn’t know that Gibson was up for a job with authorities equivalent to his own until he had lunch with the candidate. He then complained to Sulzberger, and that was pretty much the end of things.
In his piece, however, Auletta reports that Gibson felt everyone was clued in about her candidacy. Here’s her quote: “I can’t speak to Dean’s understanding, but it was made clear to me that everybody knew everything about what was being discussed,” Gibson, who stayed with the Guardian, told Auletta. “Jill was explicit in our initial conversation when she told me, ‘The first thing I have to do is talk to Dean.’ I’m mortified that these discussions are in public and feel very strongly that Jill should not have been hung out to dry when she behaved honorably and was trying to do what she thought was best for the New York Times.”
Curious: Sulzberger has put his name behind some serious allegations about Abramson. To reprise, he said that she had publicly mistreated her colleagues. Such on-the-record accountability, however, dries up when it comes to this whole Gibson-hiring snafu. Byers cites “two sources with knowledge of the reason for her termination” and notes, to his credit, that they’re sympathetic to the company’s management. And Auletta cites “[e]xtremely well-informed sources at the paper familiar with the reasons for Abramson’s dismissal.”
So, when pressed for general explanations for the sacking of the executive editor, the paper’s leadership speaks strongly. When pressed for specific explanations, it runs for the hills.