Give Me That Old Times Religion
Jill Abramson’s crisis of faith and the Gray Lady’s hostile work environment


Matthew Continetti

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 e-mailing 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.