Thursday, May 29, 2014

Beyond Jill Abramson

WHEN JILL Ellen Abramson was dismissed from her position as executive editor of The New York Times on May 14, it sent shock waves through the media world almost immediately, not least of all because of the wild divergence of opinion as to why it happened. The reasons for her dismissal from what’s rightly regarded as the pre-eminent post in American journalism were all over the place:

She was by turns brusque and passionate, abrasive and dedicated; she was cashiered for being a poor newsroom manager; she was let go because she had the nerve to seek parity of financial compensation with her predecessor, Bill Keller.

What was and is disturbingly revelatory, though, is how her ouster from The Times has cast a light on the emerging role of women in positions of power; how their ascension in the places that matter has rankled the status quo — and how, for women and minorities alike, that climb to power is complicated by almost interchangeable assumptions that have little or nothing to do with talent and everything to do with historical precedent.

It’s not just Jill Abramson, and it’s not just women. Intransigence in the halls of power is an equal opportunity experience.

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Abramson’s departure was sweet schadenfreude for those of a conservative bent. DGinCT, commenting on Ken Auletta’s piece on Abramson in The New Yorker, said:

“Gotta love it when liberals get hoisted on their own petards. She should know by now that highly positioned progressives may bleat about equality, equal rights, etc. -- but when it comes to their own conduct, it is strictly do as I say, not as I do. Sounds like how the left reacted when Monica Lewinsky came forth -- every stereotypical name and sexist female cliché were trotted out.”

Gloria Steinem had a different perspective. “It's obvious it is a double standard — a huge, huge double standard,” said Steinem, a co-founder of the Women's Media Center, on the radio show produced by the Center. Steinem, the founder of Ms. Magazine, lamented newspaper editors’ central-casting emotional trait of being difficult, The New York Times' Abe Rosenthal as a case in point.

Steinem said that “people expect better behavior” from The Times. “[They] are going to engender much, much more anger and outrage and disappointment than other news organizations.”

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THIS OUTRAGE has a history that makes Steinem’s comments more than idle complaint. In 1972, Nan Robertson, one of the Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters and author of “The Girls in the Balcony” (1992), mounted a class-action lawsuit against the paper for bias against its female employees, a suit settled favorably for the plaintiffs in 1978.

But Steinem made the implicit assumption that Rosenthal’s mercurial management style was somehow universally embraced at The Times just because he was a man — and it wasn’t. Rosenthal was disliked at the Gray Lady for being an equal opportunity shit disturber. This consistency with the in-house perception of Rosenthal’s management style undercuts Steinem’s claims of institutional sexism.

(And for all her problems with the late Rosenthal now, it’s been forgotten or certainly overlooked that, in June 1986, when The Times joined the modern world with acceptance of the honorific “Ms.,” Steinem herself brought flowers and a thank-you note to Rosenthal for making the change in Times editorial policy.)

Current Times staffers have rallied to the defense of Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the Times publisher, who ordered Abramson dismissed. “Almost nobody I have talked to, male or female, thinks her gender or pay were significant factors,” tweeted Times media reporter Ravi Somaiya on May 18, as reported in The New Republic. Times deputy international editor Lydia Polgreen echoed the same sentiment in a series of tweets, one of which said that “[t]he women of the Times would revolt en masse if they thought gender played any role at all in Abramson's firing.”

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The attention paid to Abramson’s dismissal has crowded out something that would otherwise have been an untarnished signal moment of the history of The Times, and a major media story in its own right. Abramson’s ouster elevated Dean Baquet, who is African American and a longtime veteran of the Times, to the position of executive editor — the first time in the 164-year history of the paper.

Under other circumstances, Baquet’s climb to the top of the Times masthead would be seen for what it is: a milestone in the history of American newsroom diversity, and an especially sweet triumph for The Times, which has a long and fractious record of minority advancement.

In 1987, not long after Max Frankel assumed the executive editor’s role, a group of African American Times editors prepared a “Memorandum for Max Frankel” that documented their concerns about a lack of opportunities for advancement for the Times’ black and minority journalists.

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FOLLOWING a discussion those editors had previously with Frankel and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the memo’s final draft said that

When several of us lunched with you and Arthur in December [1986], we spoke candidly of the disappointments that we and a larger number of black and Hispanic reporters, editors and photographers have felt for some time. We spoke of a feeling of having been ignored, of a sense that certain editing and reporting assignments seemed to have been implicitly designated as ‘off limits’ to staff members who are not white. ...

Ten years later, little had changed. Things got so bad that one Times editor, Angela Dodson, mounted a lawsuit against The Times, alleging that after she was promoted to be the editor of the Style section, she was constantly undermined by a deputy with a taste for drama and acrimony — something that was part of a pattern of race and gender discrimination. Dodson’s complaints got the attention of The Village Voice, which in January 1996 published Dodson’s story under the headline “The Lawsuit That Could Rock the New York Times.”

Years of stasis to that point led one bitterly disappointed Times reporter to call the paper’s newsroom, and American newsrooms in general, “the brave new plantation.”

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IN HER recent piece in The New Republic, Rebecca Traister seems to understand the connections, the commonalities between what just happened to Abramson and what’s been happening to minority journalists — of either gender — for decades:

“It’s not quite honest,” she writes, “to move straight from the conclusion that bias might not have played a direct role in an event to encouraging everyone to move along, there’s nothing to see here. In nearly every instance, we do ourselves a disservice in shutting down these enquiries with neat conclusions. We miss the opportunity to look at the larger patterns and the less easily digestible realities of how those figures who have interrupted generations of white straight male power fare as outsiders who rise to the top of the inside.”

“For those whose paths are more fraught, and whose ascensions will always be questioned based on assumptions of affirmative-actioned illegitimacy, the worst thing we can do is pretend that their stories are simple, unique to them, and that we’re all just individuals, no baggage of identity politics attached.”

That’s as true for Jill Abramson as it was for Angela Dodson as it is for anyone who doesn’t quite fit the mold, doesn’t exactly conform with the template of who gets to be in charge, or even in attendance, within the necessary institutions of our life and times. There’s a certain leader of a necessary institution who knows this all too well.

Just ask the president of the United States.

Image credits: Jill Abramson illustration by Risko: © 2014 Condé Nast Digital. Abramson photo: Tim Knox for The Guardian. New York Times logo: © 2014 The New York Times Company. Baquet: The New York Times.

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