Turmoil at the Times

JillAbramsonAs I woke up and scanned the headlines, I was jolted into consciousness when I read that Jill Abramson, executive editor of the paper of record, was suddenly and unexpectedly gone from the newsroom of the New York Times. Not just gone, but fired.

Ken Auletta speculated that the NYT‘s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.was put off by Abramson’s complaint that her pay package was considerably less than Bill Keller’s, her predecessor. Auletta also raised the gender flag by noting that Abramson, the first woman to head the editorial side of the Times, has been called brusque and “pushy,” a term usually reserved for forthright and ambitious women. (Did you ever hear a man called “pushy”?)

It took only a few hours before the Times denied that Abramson’s objection to unequal compensation was the reason for her dismissal. Sulzberger wrote a disclaimer:

Compensation played no part whatsoever in my decision that Jill could not remain as executive editor. Nor did any discussion about compensation. The reason — the only reason — for that decision was concerns I had about some aspects of Jill’s management of our newsroom, which I had previously made clear to her, both face-to-face and in my annual assessment.

If it were true that Abramson asked for compensation equal to her male counterpart’s and was fired as a result, the Times would be in deep trouble, even liable under current law.

Steven Brill has an excellent analysis of the pay structure in public corporations. He shows how bonuses are calculated by taking into account the company’s performance. He outlined several scenarios in which Abramson would have earned more than Keller because the company’s profitability and the value of its stock were much higher when she was at the helm. Yet if Abramson some had started off with Keller’s salary (which she didn’t), she would have earned a good deal more.

There had indeed been rumors that Abramson’s management style was abrupt and her temper “mercurial.” Yet, as Auletta notes, “Abrasiveness has never been a firing offense at the Times.” Be that as it may, as the day wore on and many more articles appeared, (mostly) women latched on to gender disparity not only in compensation, but in the way women are treated.

What stuck in the craw of writers such Rebecca Traister and Rachel Sklar was the way Abramson had been dismissed. All of a sudden she was gone, her name removed from the masthead. She wasn’t present when the announcement was made yesterday afternoon and she didn’t have the opportunity to bow out gracefully with some remarks of her own. There was no attempt to sugarcoat the bitter pill, no offer for the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist to continue at the paper in another capacity, such as writing a weekly column. Sulzberger made no mention of the eight Pulitzers won by journalists under her direction nor of the turnaround on the Times balance sheets − the paper had stopped bleeding red ink and was actually showing a modest profit. She was simply bounced out the door. An unceremonious dumping. She would have nothing to do with the transition of power. “She got fired with less dignity than Judith Miller, who practically started the Iraq war,” as Kate Aurthur put it in BuzzFeed.

This is no doubt a great blow for women. A woman who had scaled the upper reaches of what had been a (white) male bastion was now also a cautionary tale, a warning about the fragility of her hold on that perch once attained.

“But what really stings is the suspicion that there is something about office politics, salary negotiations, and the theater of charm and charisma that, even after all these years, women just don’t get,” writes Hanna Rosin. It is as if women will be punished for leaning in, for striving to be the best, for competing with men and certainly for besting them. Men in Abramson’s position are expected to be “pushy” and aggressive. They will tread on the toes of others from time to time. “Ladylike,” “dainty” and “modest” types can’t survive, let alone thrive in summits like the New York Times newsroom. They won’t win Pulitzer Prizes or nail down the truth behind the lies and evasions of powerful people. Men still have to come to terms with the reality that women can do even the most difficult and demanding jobs as well or better than they.


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