The New York Times, Jill Abramson, and the NSA

The New York Times has been at the receiving end of much media attention following the unceremonious dumping to Executive Editor Jill Abramson, with all manner of stories being floated as reasons for her canning. Was it due to poor management style? Was it because she complained that she was being paid less than her male predecessors? Was it because those who worked for her were complaining about her? Was it because, as Michelle Goldberg writes, she sent a reporter to London to investigate the Jimmy Savile sex abuse scandal and the way that the BBC failed to cover it, which might have implicated NYT CEO Mark Thompson who was the head of the BBC at that time? Was it because, as Ken Auletta says, she was planning to bring in a deputy managing editor to work alongside managing editor Dean Baquet, the person who replaced her, and that he was unhappy with this move?

Of course I don’t know the real answers. But there is one answer that I don’t buy and that is that she was fired because she was ‘abrasive’ or ‘pushy’, the reasons that caused some of the biggest reaction since those are descriptions most often ascribed negatively to high-achieving women but not to men. There are two reasons for my skepticism. One is that Abramson had been at the NYT for some time at a high level and must have been interacting closely and on a regular basis with the top echelon at the paper. It is absurd to think that her personality took them by surprise.

Another is that the culture at that newspaper has always been toxic with abusive bosses being commonplace. Former editor Abe Rosenthal was notoriously abusive but was described admiringly in his obituary. Charles Pierce had some experience with the NYT culture and is not an admirer.

I speak as one who took a paycheck from Mother Times for nine years at what was then its Boston-based subsidiary. There is no group of people on earth more deserving of an ensemble Liquid Plum’r enema than those people in the upper echelons of the New York Times Company. By and large, they are nasty, backstabbing careerists who would sell their white-haired grannies to Somali pirates for one more small step up the corporate ladder. When they are not being timid, they are being arrogant. (I watched them pretty much demolish the morale of a newsroom full of brilliant journalists at the Globe, as well as squashing the newspaper’s individual identity. New editor Brian McGrory, and new owner John Henry, are bringing it back, thank god.) They have as much to do with journalism as Charlie Manson does with thoracic surgery. And they’re calling the shots here.

But there is yet another possible reason and that is the way the paper viewed the Edward Snowden revelations. Recall that he snubbed the paper for its past subservience to the US and its closeness to government agencies like the NSA and there is reason to think that the top people at the paper were not big fans of Snowden. But Abramson did not seem to share that attitude while Baquet did, as he showed it in his former job at the Los Angeles Times.

David Bromwich explores this angle.

The New York Times was initially passed over by Snowden because its previous editor, Bill Keller, at the urging of the Bush administration had suppressed a major story on warrantless surveillance in 2004. But the paper in this area has grown a little braver; some of Snowden’s documents were eventually transferred to it by the Guardian; and Jill Abramson has been straightforward in defending the commitment of the Times. In an interview in January on Al Jazeera, asked whether Snowden was a traitor or a hero, she replied: “I view him, as I did Julian Assange and Wikileaks, as a very good source of extremely newsworthy information.” The Times under Abramson, in short, was not first on the story and it was not second or third, but it did not avoid the controversy the NSA revelations might bring. So much for Abramson; what about her successor, the managing editor Dean Baquet? Forget for a moment the clichés and the public-relations “narratives,” the PC alarm at the sacking the first female editor, muffled by the cool vibe of hiring in her place the first African-American editor. Has Baquet had any relationship to the NSA stories at the New York Times or elsewhere?

Documents supplied to the Los Angeles Times by Mark Klein, an AT&T employee troubled by violations of civil liberties, showed that the NSA had constructed a building within the company building and was monitoring internet transactions. Klein and the Los Angeles Times reporter who worked on the story, Joe Menn, were given to understand that theirs was front-page material. Two months passed. The editor of the Los Angeles Times agreed to meet with Michael Hayden, the director of the NSA, and John Negroponte, the Director of National Intelligence; and after speaking with those officials, the editor killed the story. The editor who did that was Dean Baquet. He said afterward that his choice not to publish had nothing to do with his prior consultation with the highest officials in charge of government surveillance; rather, Baquet just could not see the story in the story – “we did not have a story…we could not figure out what was going on.”

The New York Times disagreed; and in April 2006 Mark Klein’s facts were published, in a story by John Markoff and Scott Shane; four days later, a Times editorial backed the paper’s commitment by posing questions about the legal limits of secret surveillance. After his meeting with Hayden and Negroponte, the facts appeared to Baquet too abstruse for an ordinary mind to digest. Yet a summary by Matthew Guariglia, at an unpretentious site called, made the necessary point in a short sentence yesterday: Klein had discovered “at AT&T, where he worked, that the NSA was installing surveillance rooms and equipment where they could monitor and copy internet traffic.” Markoff and Shane also made a comprehensible summary of the facts Baquet had found mysterious and perplexing. The story was this: the NSA installed at AT&T special surveillance rooms and equipment to capture everyday traffic on the internet. A source and a reporter told it; an editor in Los Angeles seemed to like it and then talked to two government officials and then killed it; an editor in New York found it newsworthy after all and printed it.

So was Baquet brought in partly to maintain the paper’s traditional good relations with the government? Who knows? Perhaps it was a combination of many things. But I find it hard to believe that it was Abramson’s personality that led to her abrupt dismissal.


  1. colnago80 says

    It should be pointed out that the NY Times was somewhat slow off the mark on Watergate, certainly compared to the Washington Post. In fact, NY Times columnist James Reston, a former baseball writer, was quoted as saying sarcastically that Post Editor Ben Bradlee didn’t have good control of his fastball, intimating that the Post was rushing into print prematurely. Actually, the rule at the Post was that writers Woodward and Bernstein had to have 2 independent sources for a story in order for it to be approved for publication by Bradlee.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    … she was fired because she was ‘abrasive’ or ‘pushy’…

    Using those criteria, the Times would have to function without a single native or acculturated New Yorker on staff.

  3. hyphenman says

    Good morning Mano,

    This comes late to the discussion, but in reviewing my notes from Greenwald’s book I was reminded of this passage…

    Via Janine Gibson, Times executive editor Jill Abramson--at a meeting to convince the Guardian to collaborate on certain NSA stories--sent a message:

    Please tell Glenn Greenwald personally [but not officially or professionally, JH] that I agree with him completely about the fact that we should never have run the claim about China ‘draining’ Snowden’s laptops. It was irresponsible.

    Gibson seemed to expect that I would be pleased, though I was anything but: who could the executive editor of a newspaper conclude that an obviously damaging article was irresponsible and should not have been published, and then not retract it or at least run an editor’s note?

    Was Abramson unfairly dismissed or forced out? I think all the evidence supports that assertion. Did she choose to lie down with dogs? I think the evidence supports that as well.

    Do all you can to make today a good day,

    Jeff Hess
    Have Coffee Will Write

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