The Bonfire of the Inanities

Column: The New York Times Devours Itself

Jill Abramson / Twitter
May 16, 2014

Reading the New York Times’ report on the defenestration of the paper’s executive editor, Jill Abramson, and the coronation, at a hastily arranged meeting Wednesday, of her replacement Dean Baquet, I could not escape the feeling that the Soviet press must have covered the comings and goings of Politburo members in much the same way.

There was the strange construction of the headline, "Times Ousts Jill Abramson as Executive Editor, Elevating Dean Baquet," in which the identity of the man behind the ouster, Times owner Arthur Sulzberger Jr., was masked by his institutional affiliation, and in which Baquet was not promoted but—and here the metaphysical tone is intentional—"elevated" to his new position. There were the plodding, ceremonial, and forced statements for public consumption: "I will listen hard, I will be hands on, I will be engaged," Baquet was quoted as telling his new underlings. "I’ve loved my run at the Times," Abramson was allowed to reveal in a prepared statement.

There was political criticism of the outgoing commissar, made by anonymous sources using the passive voice: "As a leader of the newsroom, she was accused by some of divisiveness and criticized for several of her personnel choices." And there was a hint of samizdat irony smuggled into the article via the closing sentences: "An annual meeting for senior executives at the newspaper had been planned for Thursday and Friday. Ms. Abramson was scheduled to be one its leaders and to deliver a talk Thursday morning, titled ‘Our Evolving Newsroom.’ The meeting has been canceled." With that Jill Abramson joined the ranks of Zinoviev and Kamenev, becoming, as far as the New York Times is concerned, a nonperson.

But still a dangerous one. For on Wednesday evening Abramson’s allies, under cover of anonymous quotations in a report by the New Yorker’s Ken Auletta, accused the Times of not paying its former editor an equal wage. Leveling the charge of sexism at a bastion of liberalism such as the Times is an incendiary act, and Sulzberger, in a memo to staff obtained by Politico, said, "It is simply not true." Ira Stoll, whose is an indispensable companion for Times readers, rejected that claim, noting that the "increased cost of employer-provided health insurance (up way more than 10 percent over 3 years)" would erase any nominal advantage Abramson’s salary might have had over Keller's. And Leslie Bennetts, who left the Times in 1988, told former State Department employee Ronan Farrow on Thursday that "salary discrimination is endemic" at the paper.

What makes the story so enjoyable, on the most superficial level, is its lurid combination of identity politics—Abramson was the first female editor of the Times, and Baquet is its first African-American editor—and liberal hypocrisy. Equal pay has been one of the rallying cries of the American left, a category that very much includes the New York Times, and the possibility of sexism at the paper is rich indeed. But I have to say I am less interested in equal wages, in comparable worth, and in what the New Yorker calls the "inescapably gendered aspect" of the Times’ latest scandal than I am in how that scandal confirms one of my pet theories. The theory is this: The men and women who own and operate and produce every day the world’s most important newspaper are basically children.

This is the same New York Times that in 2003 admitted, in a multi-thousand-word correction, that it had been harboring, for reasons of political correctness, a serial fabulist who created tales and characters out of imaginative reverie and had seen these fictions published on the front page. This is the same New York Times that in 2005 fired its former Baghdad bureau chief after the paper’s management discovered that she had been emailing the wives of two foreign correspondents to say that they were having affairs. This is the same New York Times whose staffers are engaged in a "semi-open revolt" against op-ed and editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal, a "semi-open" rebellion in which propaganda by the deed consists of not sitting at Rosenthal’s lunch table. And yet this is the same New York Times that day after day, in article after article, instructs its readers, and the country, in how to think, how to vote, what to eat, what to wear, who is in, who is out, what is doubleplus, and what is crimethink. The gall.

Gossipy, catty, insular, cliquey, stressful, immature, cowardly, moody, underhanded, spiteful—the New York Times gives new meaning to the term "hostile workplace." What has been said of the press—that it wields power without any sense of responsibility—is also a fair enough description of the young adult. And it is to high school, I think, that the New York Times is most aptly compared. The coverage of the Abramson firing reads at times like the plot of an episode of Saved By the Bell minus the sex: Someone always has a crazy idea, everyone’s feelings are always hurt, apologies and reconciliations are made and quickly sundered, confrontations are the subject of intense planning and preparation, and authority figures are youth-oriented, well-intentioned, bumbling, and inept.

We learn, through anonymous sources, that Abramson was offended by something Sulzberger did or said during a meeting in the spring of 2010. But she did not confront him. "Jill went to Janet and told Janet she had enough of Arthur and had an offer to go. Janet patched things up." We learn that Sulzberger did not like all of the attention his first woman editor was getting, that he lost faith in her when she gave an interview to Alec Baldwin on WNYC in February of last year (one wonders what Baldwin’s comment to this story might be).

Sulzberger never confronted Abramson. "At one point, Sulzberger went to the Times PR department and asked an executive when Abramson was going to stop doing interviews," reports Gabriel Sherman. We learn that when Sulzberger hired Mark Thompson, a BBC executive, as the company’s CEO, Abramson went behind his back and assigned reporter Matthew Purdy to travel to London and investigate whether Thompson had been involved in the Beeb’s Jimmy Savile pedophilia scandal. When he learned about this, Sulzberger was not happy. "He was livid," a source told Sherman, "in a very passive-aggressive way."

Reflect on that description for a moment. Sulzberger was not livid in a "passive" way—which seems to be impossible under most common definitions of "livid"—nor was he livid in an "aggressive" way. He was livid in a "passive-aggressive" way, which probably means he fumed about the matter to his allies while playing nice for the cameras and for Abramson. Maybe Carlos Slim, the Mexican oligarch who owns slightly under a fifth of the Times company, walked Sulzberger back from acting hastily.

Why was Jill Abramson fired? The answer provided by the Times itself is less than satisfactory: "People in the company briefed on the situation described serious tension in her relationship with Mr. Sulzberger, who was concerned about complaints from employees that she was polarizing and mercurial." That much seems clear. Another childish decision on Abramson’s part—attempting to hire a co-managing editor from the left-wing Guardian without bothering to inform Baquet—may have been the catalyst for her removal. It is impossible to say.

"It was just a lot of accumulated backbiting," a source told Sherman. That quote, said former Times media reporter Brian Stelter, now a television host for CNN, "rings truest." And Abramson seems to have done as much of the biting as Baquet or Sulzberger or any number of Times staffers. It is hard to have much sympathy for her: A native of the Upper West Side whose parents were devoted supporters of Adlai Stevenson (better Stevenson, I suppose, than Henry Wallace), Abramson liked to say that, growing up, the Times "was our religion." Now comes the crisis of faith.

The details of her biography make Abramson seem less like the ideal editor of the Times than its ideal reader. Her family had not one but two copies of the paper delivered to their Central Park West apartment. Abramson graduated from the progressive and modish Ethical Culture School and from Harvard. During the summer of Chappaquiddick she was working in a cheese shop while vacationing with her family on Nantucket.

Abramson got her start on Democratic campaigns and in writing copy for Democratic advertisements, returning to journalism in 1980 via NBC and Steven Brill’s The American Lawyer. From there she went to the Wall Street Journal before settling in at the Times. Named to the top job in 2011, she quickly came to embody the weaknesses of liberalism in power—the best of intentions, the worst of results. 

She is an odd duck. A recent photo posted to Twitter shows her flashing the peace sign while hitching a ride on a pickup truck at South By Southwest. Another photo, released after her dismissal, shows her working out some aggression by boxing. She comes across as a bobo pretender, one of those aging boomers who tries to stay "with it" by playing to the Millennial crowd. Profiling Abramson last year, the New Yorker observed, "The first thing that people usually notice about Jill Abramson is her voice," describing it as "the equivalent of a nasal car honk." One of Abramson’s friends said the affect "probably had something to do with trying to sound a bit like Bob Dylan." Never before have I encountered a human being who wanted to sound like Bob Dylan.

Nor is it exactly common for 60-year-olds to get tattoos. Abramson has three: one of a subway token, one of an "H" to represent both Harvard and her husband, and one of her former newspaper’s famous gothic "T." Somewhere in Manhattan, a tattoo-removal parlor is about to get a customer.

Another strike against Abramson is her friendship with the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, who has made a career out of writing partisan and misleading hit pieces that target conservatives. The two wrote an anti-Clarence Thomas book when that was the fashionable issue of the left. "She works incredibly hard, holds everyone including herself to the highest standards, and is a forceful and fearless advocate," Mayer told the Times. I laughed out loud when I read that last sentence because, in the matter of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Abramson has shown herself to be forceless and quite full of fear.

When Brandeis University revoked an honorary degree it was planning to award Hirsi Ali, I asked Alana Goodman to email Abramson, who is also scheduled to receive an honor from Brandeis, for her reaction. Abramson told Goodman she would not comment on the story because it was being covered by the Times—an outright and scurrilous dodge, considering that, as Arthur Sulzberger will no doubt tell you, there are few political or professional issues on which Jill Abramson has been unwilling to share her opinion. Hirsi Ali is the one woman Abramson will not "lean in" to defend.

And yet I have to admit that as I read more about the reasons for her dismissal I developed a grudging respect for Abramson. One of her pet peeves was online video of two reporters discussing their own work. "She thought there is nothing more boring than two print people talking in front of a camera about a story you can read in a minute." I cannot agree more. Abramson also had qualms about incorporating native advertising into the Times website—an appropriate concern, it seems to me, considering the Times’ tradition of being the media’s fuddy-duddy, the boring old Gray Lady.

As a daily reader of the paper I also agreed with Abramson’s assessment when she told Dean Baquet that some of the articles he was putting on the front page were boring. My only quibble is with her use of the word "some." Editor’s prerogative, one would think, to critique the work of subordinates. Baquet’s response was to punch a wall.

Sulzberger may soon find that Baquet has his own "issues" with authority. His previous employer, the Los Angeles Timespushed him out when he protested cuts to the newsroom. Those cuts were necessary due to the changing finances—which is to say, lack of finances—of America's newspapers. The coming weeks may reveal that it was Abramson’s resistance to all of the fancy products and instruments that the Times is planning to use to charge subscribers more for the same liberal conventional wisdom, rather than her weirdness and Queen-of-Hearts management style, that spurred Sulzberger’s decision to fire her. Not even identity politics can withstand the crush of money, the global flow of capital. Leave it to Sulzberger, though, to execute that firing in a haphazard and immature and rather embarrassing way.

"This is incredibly un-Times-ian," one female staffer told Gabe Sherman. Really? She must not get into the office much.

Published under: Media , New York Times