The media world was rocked by two bombshells today.
The first was the news story that New York Times editor Jill Abramson was abruptly fired by Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., the publisher of the paper and the chairman of The New York Times Company. The Time’s own story said he ” told a stunned newsroom that had been quickly assembled that he had made the decision because of ‘an issue with management in the newsroom.'”
Accounts had typical office politics and management issues in their lists of why. For instance, in the Times’ account of her truly stunning replacement as Executive Editor with Managing Editor Dean Baquet taking over it reported:
Ms. Abramson, 60, had been in the job only since September 2011. But people in the company briefed on the situation described serious tension in her relationship with Mr. Sulzberger, who had been hearing concerns from employees that she was polarizing and mercurial. They had disagreements even before she was appointed executive editor, and she had also had clashes with Mr. Baquet.
In recent weeks, people briefed on the situation said, Mr. Baquet had become angered over a decision by Ms. Abramson to try to hire an editor from The Guardian, Janine Gibson, and install her alongside him a co-managing editor position without consulting him. It escalated the conflict between them and rose to the attention of Mr. Sulzberger.
Ms. Abramson had recently engaged a consultant to help her with her management style. Mr. Sulzberger nevertheless made the decision earlier this month to dismiss her, and last Thursday he informed Mr. Baquet of his promotion, according to the people briefed on the situation, who declined to speak for attribution because of the sensitivity of the matter.
But is that the whole story — the account in the New York Times? Is that why the Times’ first female editor was given the boot in a most abrupt and some would say professionally humiliating way?
The second bombshell was the report in the New Yorker by Ken Auletta, which gives another reason as it details why she was fired — one that will likely make the Times and how women in journalism are still treated a big part of the story in coming days:
Fellow-journalists and others scrambled to find out what had happened. Sulzberger had fired Abramson, and he did not try to hide that. In a speech to the newsroom on Wednesday afternoon, he said, “I chose to appoint a new leader of our newsroom because I believe that new leadership will improve some aspects …” Abramson chose not to attend the announcement, and not to pretend that she had volunteered to step down.
And here is the biggie:
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. Sulzberger is known to believe that the Times, as a financially beleaguered newspaper, needed to retreat on some of its generous pay and pension benefits; Abramson had also been at the Times for far fewer years than Keller, having spent much of her career at the Wall Street Journal, accounting for some of the pension disparity. Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Times, said that Jill Abramson’s total compensation as executive editor “was directly comparable to Bill Keller’s”—though it was not actually the same. I was also told by another friend of Abramson’s that the pay gap with Keller was only closed after she complained. But, to women at an institution that was once sued by its female employees for discriminatory practices, the question brings up ugly memories. Whether Abramson was right or wrong, both sides were left unhappy. 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.”
And you can use educated guesses why: a)they didn’t want to spend the money in a time of financial tightness b)giving into such a demand or even a polite request would mean the Times in effect was guilty of treating its first female top editor differently than it had treated top male editors and, c) editorially The New York Times has been among the most adamant in its demand that there be equal pay for women. No matter what the reasons, the optics for the Times will look lousy if it turns out she was paid less than a male editor. Some readers might (correctly) say: “Yeah, right” when they see another editorial demanding women be paid as much as men. MORE:
Sulzberger’s frustration with Abramson was growing. She had already clashed with the company’s C.E.O., Mark Thompson, over native advertising and the perceived intrusion of the business side into the newsroom. Publicly, Thompson and Abramson denied that there was any tension between them, as Sulzberger today declared that there was no church-state—that is, business-editorial—conflict at the Times. A politician who made such implausible claims might merit a front-page story in the Times. The two men and Abramson clearly did not get along.
The reason Sulzberger originally hesitated to appoint Abramson as executive editor was a worry about her sometimes brusque manner. As I wrote in my Profile of Abramson, others in the newsroom, including some women, had the same concern. But, although there are always complaints about the Times’ supposed “liberal” bias, or its preoccupation with certain stories, Abramson got high marks for the investigative stories that she championed. At a time when Bloomberg News pulled the plug on an investigation of corruption and the princelings in China, Abramson pushed the Times to do more, even after her reporters came under pressure in China. Even though she thought she was politely asking about the pay discrepancy and about the role of the business side, and that she had a green light from management to hire a deputy to Baquet, the decision to terminate her was made. Sulzberger met with her last Friday, and reportedly told her that it was time to make “a change.”
There’s a lot more so be sure to go to the link and read it in full.
Those of us who worked and who still work in newspapers know that it’s best to totally ignore the corporatespeak. Newspapers demand transparency and real answers from the people and institutions they cover, but in internal matters they can be as candid as a police department p.r. person asked to take a position on a citizen shot 10 times by three police officers.
Look for this story continue — and most likely grow.
Importantly, Times notes Abramson & Times reached a settlement. So no lawsuits. http://t.co/VsO6OdsaRd
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) May 15, 2014
The New York Times fired executive editor Jill Abramson, but it's her own fault for complaining she made less than the man she replaced.
— Top Conservative Cat (@TeaPartyCat) May 15, 2014
— Global Fund forWomen (@GlobalFundWomen) May 14, 2014
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Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.