Sanctimonious Times

by Kevin D. Williamson
The Grey Lady gets her comeuppance.

The clash of liberal pieties over the firing of New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson is wonderfully amusing. Feminists complain that her treatment is typical of the mistreatment women face in high-level management jobs, while others cheer the fact that her replacement, Dean Baquet, is the paper’s first black executive editor. There is some dispute over the question of Ms. Abramson’s compensation relative to her male predecessor, and about whether she was penalized for her management style, described as “condescending” by one critic, in a way that a male editor would not have been.

A few thoughts: The first is that I would not be at all surprised if Ms. Abramson’s compensation were less than she expected compared to what her predecessors had earned. Though my own experience as a newspaper editor has been considerably less rarefied than hers, I do recall that some years ago I was offered a job as editor of a daily newspaper at a salary that was less than half of what a previous, long-serving editor had earned. Declining margins have put a great deal of pressure on executive compensation at media companies. The phenomenon no doubt is more extreme outside the lofty heights of the New York Times, but the dynamic probably is the same throughout the industry. I suspect that if I were to return to an editor’s position comparable to any I have held in the past, I would be paid less not only in real terms but in absolute terms than I was. The numbers are just sort of ugly.

As for her allegedly condescending management habits, I have never had any dealings with Ms. Abramson, but such dealings as I have had with the New York Times suggest to me very strongly that condescending is the house style. But newspapers in general are hilariously mismanaged. I could write a Harvard case study on my experience with the Journal Register Company. As a young newspaper editor some years back, I observed with horror and fascination as our management attempted to solve the “problem” of an advertising salesman who was too good at his job. Advertising salesmen typically are paid modest salaries and substantial commissions, and a young man we had hired in his first sales job turned out to be an absolute animal, stacking up commissions so quickly that he was on pace to out-earn the head of the advertising department his first year on the job, which was regarded as unseemly. The budget committee, apparently unaware of how commissions work, was scandalized at the line item representing his compensation, failing to appreciate that this outflow was the result of an enormous, unexpected inflow of revenue. When I pointed out that if his commissions amounted to $5 million a year then we could probably let the rest of the department go, I was invited to go back to minding my commas. The eventual bankruptcy surprised no one.

The mascot-type thinking at work in the Times story — Ms. Abramson is not an editor but a female editor, Mr. Baquet is not an editor but a black editor — is distasteful, but typical of the way the business operates. Newspapers are managed by a collection of overly emotional people from the newsroom, business-school types who neither know nor care how newspapers actually work, and a fair number of gentlemen who inherited the business from their fathers. Mr. Baquet is a highly regarded reporter, and a winner of the Pulitzer prize for investigative work, but he also served as the editor of the Los Angeles Times, which seems to me as much a disqualification as a qualification for advancement, given that he failed to stop that scandalously incompetent newspaper’s descent from mediocrity. Los Angeles is a fascinating city, but its newspaper reads like it belongs to a town of 100,000. (It does have lovely typography, though.) But to anybody who has followed his career, his ascent seems almost preordained. In either case, I wish him the best of luck.

We conservatives like to beat up on the New York Times, and it gives us many, many reasons to do so, not least its sanctimony, which is on unfortunate display during this episode. But cities and countries need newspapers, and we criticize the Times as much for what it fails to do as for the offenses it gives. I only wish that the paper were as excited about its intellectual standards as it is about the genital configuration of its editor.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.

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