I’ve been reading about the shocking dismissal of Jill Abramson, executive editor at the New York Times. It says so much about what is going wrong here: if there is any paper that personifies journalism in the US, it’s the NY Times, and at the same time we’ve been witnessing the decay in journalism as an institution, we can see the rot blooming all over the flagship. I’m not a media insider by any means, but when you see the deck sagging and one of the masts falling off, even us outsiders can see something is seriously amiss.
One of the problems is simple corporate sexism.
There are two intertwining narratives of Abramson’s downfall, and both probably have some truth to them. The story that’s gotten the most attention, of course, is about sexism. “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,” Ken Auletta reported in The New Yorker. “’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.”
She got paid less than Bill Keller? Ethically challenged, insensitive, entitled Bill Keller? Say it ain’t so. And then she dared to actually point out this problem to the corporate executives? How dare she.
I don’t think that if a man did exactly the same thing, that his pay was not equivalent to that of his predecessor, that he’d get called “pushy”. That would be a case of pointing out an unfairness, whereas women are supposed to simply accept an unfairness. She was clearly a bad woman.
She broke the clubhouse rules. She never became that mythical female boss who is assertive but not aggressive, nurturing but not mothering, not so strong that it bothers the men, but never weak like a woman.
The top quote mentions that there were two factors contributing to her firing. One was sexism. The other was independence and ethics. She was for ’em, clearly something that put her at odds with NYT management, the newspaper that allowed Judith Miller to work until she retired.
But if Abramson’s demise is about gender, it’s also about newsroom values—and here, the implications are almost as troubling. At NYMag.com, Gabriel Sherman describes how she clashed with Thompson over native advertising or ads designed to look like editorial content. He writes about how she resisted Thompson’s push for a greater emphasis on online video, and about how she enraged him by sending a journalist to investigate his role in the unfolding Jimmy Savile sex abuse scandal at the BBC, which he led before going to the Times. In all of these conflicts, she was right, and in two of them, she was defending fundamental journalist principles.
Mark Thompson is the NYT’s CEO, formerly of the BBC, where he was in charge when a documentary on Jimmy Savile, long in preparation, was squelched as just too embarrassing for management (hey, who knew the BBC and the Catholic Church would have something in common?). He’s keeping his job. The woman who thought it was newsworthy to investigate a cover up is fired.
So clearly, the lesson from this story is that if you are a woman in journalism, you must be submissive and you must abandon any sense of what is right. I guess working while female at the NYT is a bit like having a role in Fifty Shades of Gray.