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What to Make of the Jill Abramson Firing

| May 27, 2014

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New York Times

On May 14, Jill Abramson, the first woman executive editor of The New York Times, was abruptly fired after two and a half years in the position, and 17 years at the paper, replaced by the managing editor, Dean Baquet. Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., blamed Abramson’s reportedly brusque management style; Abramson had also questioned management about being paid less than her male predecessor. A special edition of Women’s Media Center Live With Robin Morgan devoted the entire hour to a roundtable of four distinguished journalists, all members of the WMC board of directors—Soraya Chemaly, Carol Jenkins, Geneva Overholser, and Gloria Steinem— delving into the implications of this firing. Following is an edited excerpt from that conversation. The full program is available at WMCLive.com and iTunes.

Robin: The New York Times has as its motto “All the news that’s fit to print.” Of course, who decides what’s fit to print? I’m wondering whether it’s perhaps time that we question whether the Sulzbergers are fit to publish. Last weekend, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., came out rather nastily on Abramson’s management style, because he couldn’t fault her journalism or other facts: that, for example, the young staffers, especially but not exclusively women, adored her, that eight Pulitzer Prizes had been won in her two and a half years as executive editor, that she’d brought the paper to financial solidity, or that she had overseen the successful expansion into digital. So it seems that we’re back to “style,” “brusqueness,” “difficult to talk to,” “women should be listeners,” “authoritarian.”

Geneva: I think what is so dispiriting is that once again we’re focusing on style, and every time specifics have been listed as to what was wrong with Jill’s management style, we hear things that simply don’t stack up to a firing offense. We hear things that we all know male editors have done to a much greater degree—being polarizing, or embarrassing people publicly, or demanding that people go back and find a photo, or asking why stories didn’t appear in The Times; these are things that either editors ought to do, or editors of old did much more brusquely. It’s very hard to equate that with any of that being a firing offense, and certainly with deserving the kind of indignity of this dismissal.

Soraya: The idea that’s implied in all of this is that [women] have to play nice, and somehow that will ensure that we can accomplish our goals. What’s missing in a lot of the public conversation is a real commitment to understanding implicit biases and stereotypes.

Carol: I was amused, and equally amazed, to read Kathleen Parker’s column on this—a usually conservative writer who indicated that Jill Abramson was the tipping point, and would probably change the election in 2016 because it was just too much, in a week where Hillary was accused [by Karl Rove] of having brain damage and Jill of being a lousy manager. In a way, this whole thing has done us a favor in that it’s really just too much. Even women who would shy away from a feminist [critique] see that this just does not hold water. So I think that this will be a pivotal moment in journalism and the rest of society and business where women will just put an end to this.

Robin: I had a similar thought when I heard that people were considering demonstrating, and they were writing to The Times, and they were considering canceling their subscriptions. I haven’t seen this kind of organic groundswell, not at all organized, not at all “women’s movement,” but from ordinary women, since the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings. So maybe you’re right, Carol.

Gloria: It’s obvious that it is a huge, huge double standard. We have all known editors of newspapers, and especially The New York Times—I’m thinking of Abe Rosenthal, who was so difficult that, you know, it was legendary. So there’s clearly a double standard. I think what The New York Times doesn’t realize is that there is also a different kind of double standard in the sense that people expect better behavior from them, so they are going to engender much, much, much more anger and outrage and disappointment than, say, a network or some other journalistic body might.

Robin: Let’s tackle the repeating agony in which a man of color [Baquet is African American] and a white woman are pitted against each other, competing, while women of color don’t even get to approach the starting gate, and while white men, I swear, somewhere sit back and chuckle.

Carol: To me, this is a white woman and a white man in a management dispute, and all I can say is poor Dean, whose ascendancy is somewhat tainted by this whole thing. This is a question of bad management, and more to the point, The New York Times’ bad management. Sulzberger clearly does not have his operation under control, and has really made a mess of things there.

Geneva: It does occur to me that the institutions that are progressive or enlightened enough to bring women and people of color to the top may be so few that women and people of color end up being pitted up against one another more often than would otherwise be the case. But I think what this shows is the extraordinary pain caused by giving someone an opportunity and then not supporting her.

Gloria: I think one of the questions we ought to ask right away is, Is Dean getting an equal salary? I think it’s very important that we both point out the unfairness to her, and demand fairness for him on salary and everything else.

Soraya: This pattern is not new, and it’s not unique to The New York Times. There was a report that came out just a few weeks ago about how even the most liberal of our media outlets are dominated by white men, and there’s just a prevailing feeling that there’s only one place, and either a white woman or a black man is gonna fill it, which may not be accurate, but it looks that way. This gives the appearance of that kind of mechanism working with very little internal [willingness] to change.

Carol: To The New York Times’ credit, they had a woman and a man of color in those positions and no one could dispute the fact that each of them were qualified to do the job, so that’s on the positive side. I really want to make sure that the emphasis is kept on the white male, the patriarchy, as responsible for this mishandling as opposed to blaming the black guy, or blaming the woman, which is again pitting them against each other. This really is a Sulzberger mishandling of his operation.

Robin: So now we have a new phrase, the “Glass Cliff.” It turns out, as we pan back to the larger view of this, that women CEOs are forced out of their jobs eleven times more frequently than men are. The same day Jill was fired, Natalie Nougayrède, the first woman editor-in-chief of the prestigious French paper Le Monde, was also sacked—for being “difficult.” The Women’s Media Center Report on the Status of Women in Media 2014 does not have happy news in it: men dominate media, all outlets and all topics. And when you go to the section on women in leadership, it’s deplorable. So what do we do with that?

Gloria: Well, I think there’s one title we need, it’s called ‘owner.’ Because the truth is, in a way women are like an immigrant group—everybody has had a tough time working their way up through the dominant system, and therefore each new group ends up with a larger share starting their own businesses. More women are trying to start their own businesses than men. Of course they’re much smaller, but I do think that it’s both a reason and an encouragement to start your own enterprise, to go outside a structure, to go someplace where nobody can fire you.

Geneva: I would say it’s now more important than ever that woman own the place, because there is no more vulnerable situation than the one that Jill was in, in my view, and the one that Dean is now in. I mean, newsrooms have always been hard to run, but back in the day when I was editor, a long time ago, you didn’t have the additional challenge of trying to lead change, and while The Times has changed, it hasn’t changed nearly quickly enough. This is a very different world, and a digital world. We’re in a world where business innovation is essential, and you’ve got to try to lead journalism through those dangerous shoals. So what we have here is a person who comes into leadership, and is palpably different, that is, is a woman, and is trying to lead change, which nobody likes in a room that is always fertile with anonymous gripes. So here is a perfect situation for vulnerability.

Gloria: I also think in the very long term, that as long as most of us are raised by women, men especially will continue to associate female authority with childhood, and will continue to feel un-manned by an authoritative woman, because the last time they saw a woman in power they were eight or ten, and they literally feel regressed. [Look at] the response to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, and the big grown-up newspeople on television, who were saying things like, “I cross my legs whenever I see her,” and, you know, “She reminds me of my first wife’s outsized alimony,” I mean just horrendous things, and these were intelligent men. In a deep way I think they’re feeling regressed. Until we have enough women in authority and men raising children, we’re going to continue to have a certain amount of resistance among men especially to women in power.

Soraya: I agree with you; I think what’s interesting in this dynamic, particularly in newsrooms, is how deeply embedded the linguistic norms are in in terms of gender, because we simply expect girls as children to speak last, to not interrupt, to be more polite, to not use obscene language, and when they transgress, they’re punished for it. And yet somehow they’re supposed to adapt to those norms in the public sphere, and then we’re supposed to ignore the fact that they’re penalized for doing just that. So it really is an untenable condition as long as we have these extremely, extremely gendered ideas about speech and behavior, and even as subtle as things like body language.

Carol: One of the things that I loved about Jill’s commencement address at Wake Forest was her common sense and her humor, and her ability to handle disaster, if you will, without freaking out, which is the way women are often described—we can’t take it, and we’ll, you know, shut ourselves in our houses. She did none of that, and I think that, if we’re going to talk about this “cliff” that people are being pushed off of, we need more examples of women who can really handle it. Not that we need more women pushed off the cliff, but I think that hers is an example of, disaster happens to everyone, and you just move along.

Gloria: I just wanted to say how important it is not only personally and in the deep sense, but also tactically, to remember that for the most part people will accept the event in the way that you do. So you have to consider that, and that in itself is gendered because it’s easier to present ourselves as a victim than a victor. So we ourselves need to take the power—the personal power to not present ourselves as a victim, and to just keep going, keep our sense of humor, keep our strengths, and more people will accept it in the way we do.

Robin: She’s been called a victim no matter what she does, and I think that she is a victim of mismanagement and sexism at The Times, but it’s one thing to be that and another thing to act victimized.

Gloria: I don’t mean we should say, “I forgive them for they know not what they do,” but I think that we should pity these idiots who are so biased they can’t adjust to the talent of half the human race.

Robin: You know, Sheryl [Sandberg] has her “Lean In” approach—well, god knows, as a number of people have pointed out, Jill “leaned in.” People are wondering, will younger women push harder now or will they backpedal? Susan Glasser, writing in Politico, noted, “Women leaders remain outliers” in media, and there’ll be fewer of them going this route because they don’t intend to be treated this way. I think there’s good news in that there are excellent young women writers who have been writing brilliantly about this—Rebecca Traister in The New Republic, Soraya in the Ms. blog, Amanda Hess in Slate—just in case anybody thinks feminism is not alive, kicking, and red-hot furious. But what have we learned, and how can we use it to change this so it doesn’t happen quite this way again?

Carol: I’ll go back to my theory that this was in fact the tipping point, because a line of—I don’t know—civilization was crossed. And The New York Times is really the one taking a drubbing overall with this. Everybody is inflamed, and even those who would like to say, “Well maybe they had reason,” say, but they handled it very badly. And so I think it should inspire women to know that there are people on our side.

Geneva: I also think that the number of women writing very powerful things, and the number of women in The Times newsroom saying how much Jill meant to them, the praise she’s getting … you know, so often when women encounter something like this, you don’t see that they themselves had acted as much as one would hope on behalf of women, which Jill clearly did, and you don’t see this outpouring of support. So I feel hopeful about it—if something like this is going to happen, at least we might find power as a result of it.

Soraya: I am not an advocate of ‘Lean In’ approaches, and I think that a lot of younger women are rethinking that approach when they look at this case, and rightfully so. There was an article in The American Prospect, and the headline was “Would a Softer Managerial Style Have Saved Jill Abramson?” I think that those are the kinds of questions that millennial women are asking, which is really problematic for lots of reasons. I’m glad they’re asking it, but I think that asking it that way is a problem. I really want to hold the institution accountable and not have it turned into, “What can women do to adapt a norm in order to make other people happy?”

Gloria: I agree. I think it’s very, very important that we not start blaming the victim, that we look at it realistically, that we understand that if women are going to lean in, men have to lean out if we’re going to end up in the same place. And we need to do two things, I think, which is keep up the criticism big time, not only of who they hire and how they treat them, but how they inherit— how this newspaper is inherited. From both an inheritance point of view and a hiring point of view, they’re not up to anything like modern standards. I have been saying for years that The New York Times is like hemophilia—it passes through women and men get it.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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