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)


Jill Abramson’s speech was likely among the most widely followed commencement addresses in history. It drew an enormous media presence, with about 200 journalists on hand. CNN, MSNBC and C-SPAN covered it live, with live streaming on YouTube, NBCNews.com and the university’s web site, among others.

“Some of you have faced danger or even a soul-scorching loss,” Abramson said in her 13-minute address. “But most of you haven’t, and leaving the protective cocoon of school for the working world must seem scary. You will probably have a dozen different jobs, try many different things. Sure, losing a job you love hurts, but the work I revered, journalism that holds powerful people and institutions accountable, is what makes our democracy so resilient. This is the work I will remain very much a part of.”

“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 media gathering, Abramson cracked at one point, “I’m impressed that your achievement have attracted so much media attention.”

She said her father, a college dropout, was proud of his two daughters’ achievements, but always advised them that character came from failure. “It meant more to our father to deal with a setback and try to bounce back than to deal with our success. ‘Show what you are made of,’ he’d say.”

She cited the examples of a Times journalist in China, who, despite being detained at one point by Chinese authorities, “went right back to work and got on with it. ‘I believe what I do and that makes me fearless,'” she quoted him as telling her.

Abramson also cited former Times reporter Nan Robertson, who was among a group of female journalists who challenged the newspaper’s treatment of women in the 1970s, and Katharine Graham, the late publisher of The Washington Post, who took over the paper upon the death of her husband, Philip L. Graham, in the early 1960s and saw it through its Watergate coverage and enormous business success. Graham and Robertson both eventually won Pulitzer Prizes.

In answer to a question from a student journalist whom she met yesterday, Abramson said had no intention of removing a “T” tattoo she has on her back in tribute to the Times. ​

She also cited as “a hero” Times reporter James Risen, who is in the midst of a lengthy legal battle with the federal government, which is seeking the names of his confidential sources on a series of stories and a book chapter he wrote revealing national-security secrets in 2006.

Among those who offered encouragement to her last week, Abramson said, was law professor Anita Hill, who challenged Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas at his nomination hearings in the early 1990s and was vilified as “a little bit nutty, a little bit slutty.”

As a piece of parting advice, Abramson cited her mother, an avid knitter. “Stick to your knitting,” she told the graduates.

She received a sustained standing ovation from the audience at the conclusion of her talk.