Commentary Magazine


Topic: Jill Abramson

Judge the Times the Way It Judges Others

Love it or hate it, the New York Times remains one of the principal institutions of American journalism. So when its executive editor is abruptly and publicly fired with none of the usual platitudes or polite white lies about the victim deciding to explore other opportunities or spend more time with their families and with the process not dragged out to ensure a smooth and seemingly orderly transition, it is big news in the world of journalism. But the decision of Times publisher Arthur “Pinch” Sulzberger Jr. to “oust”—to use the word used by the newspaper in the headline of its own story about the firing—Jill Abramson seems more like a public hanging than a routine replacement of a top editor. Abramson is a deeply repellent figure in many ways, but her treatment is shocking not because it might be undeserved but because it is highly unusual for someone at this level to walk the plank in such a manner.

Let’s admit that most of us speculating about what caused this to happen don’t know all the details. But while there is an element to this story for other journalists that seems like a car wreck that we know we should turn away from but can’t help staring at, what we have learned about what preceded Sulzberger’s decision is highly suspicious. If, as Ken Auletta informs us in the New Yorker, Abramson made some loud complaints to her boss about not getting paid as much as her predecessor Bill Keller, then the paper has a lot of explaining to do about the decision. The implications of the public statements about Abramson by her successor Dean Baquet—in which he gave her a backhanded compliment about teaching him “the value of great ambition” and then followed it by praising another former colleague for teaching about how “great editors can be humane editors”—leads observers to the obvious conclusion that he and his audience of Times staffers thought she was a horror.

But this piling on Abramson will naturally lead others to wonder whether this new sensitivity about her obnoxiousness is an attempt to distract us from the real reason she was fired. Were this kind of thing going on anywhere else, it’s easy to imagine the New York Times editorial page speculating about whether what we are watching is just another instance of an old boys club closing ranks against a “bossy”—to use a term that some feminists are now saying is a key indicator of sexism—female who annoyed the powerful men around her. And that is the most important point to be made about this episode.

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Love it or hate it, the New York Times remains one of the principal institutions of American journalism. So when its executive editor is abruptly and publicly fired with none of the usual platitudes or polite white lies about the victim deciding to explore other opportunities or spend more time with their families and with the process not dragged out to ensure a smooth and seemingly orderly transition, it is big news in the world of journalism. But the decision of Times publisher Arthur “Pinch” Sulzberger Jr. to “oust”—to use the word used by the newspaper in the headline of its own story about the firing—Jill Abramson seems more like a public hanging than a routine replacement of a top editor. Abramson is a deeply repellent figure in many ways, but her treatment is shocking not because it might be undeserved but because it is highly unusual for someone at this level to walk the plank in such a manner.

Let’s admit that most of us speculating about what caused this to happen don’t know all the details. But while there is an element to this story for other journalists that seems like a car wreck that we know we should turn away from but can’t help staring at, what we have learned about what preceded Sulzberger’s decision is highly suspicious. If, as Ken Auletta informs us in the New Yorker, Abramson made some loud complaints to her boss about not getting paid as much as her predecessor Bill Keller, then the paper has a lot of explaining to do about the decision. The implications of the public statements about Abramson by her successor Dean Baquet—in which he gave her a backhanded compliment about teaching him “the value of great ambition” and then followed it by praising another former colleague for teaching about how “great editors can be humane editors”—leads observers to the obvious conclusion that he and his audience of Times staffers thought she was a horror.

But this piling on Abramson will naturally lead others to wonder whether this new sensitivity about her obnoxiousness is an attempt to distract us from the real reason she was fired. Were this kind of thing going on anywhere else, it’s easy to imagine the New York Times editorial page speculating about whether what we are watching is just another instance of an old boys club closing ranks against a “bossy”—to use a term that some feminists are now saying is a key indicator of sexism—female who annoyed the powerful men around her. And that is the most important point to be made about this episode.

That may be unfair to Sulzberger, Baquet, and the rest of the Times firing squad. Moreover, I think even those who are most critical of the Times’s liberal bias and increasing propensity for slipshod journalism and dumbing down of standards should try to resist the temptation of wallowing in schaudenfraude at Abramson’s downfall. But I do think it is entirely fair for the rest of us to judge the Times’s behavior the way it judges everyone else.

There may well have been good reasons why Abramson was not paid as much as Keller that had nothing to do with sexism. Perhaps Sulzberger belatedly realized that having an editor that was not as “humane” as Baquet implied she should have been was a big mistake that needed to be rectified as soon as possible. Abramson may have been considered a great journalist by many of her liberal admirers who shared her belief that reading the Times should be considered a religious rite. But a close look at her career—which was jump-started by her participation in the lynching of Clarence Thomas with biased reporting and a subsequent book written with Jane Mayer—does not justify that conclusion.

But the same newspaper that has regularly treated far less evidence of sexism as enough to justify public crucifixions of less powerful institutions than the Times should now be put under the same scrutiny. Any other place that couldn’t tolerate a powerful and highly regarded woman because of her “brusque manner,” or who sought to influence hiring decisions that was the purview of the publisher and made untimely demands about being paid the same as the boys, would be assumed to be a bastion of chauvinism deserving of the kind of obloquy that only the Times can dish out with slanted news stories and pontificating editorials.

It is a terrible thing to see any veteran journalist get turned out on the street in this kind of manner and I don’t think anyone—except perhaps for Thomas—would be justified in exulting about has happened to Abramson. But for the Times itself, I have no compassion or sympathy. The Times deserves to be judged and condemned as the classic example of liberal hypocrisy.

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NYT Ombud Knocks “Occupy” Cheerleading

Arthur Brisbane, outgoing ombudsman at the New York Times, caused a bit of a stir this weekend with his final column. As Jonathan noted, much of Brisbane’s criticism of the paper is standard fare. But one aspect of it stood out to me. Brisbane wrote:

Across the paper’s many departments, though, so many share a kind of political and cultural progressivism — for lack of a better term — that this worldview virtually bleeds through the fabric of The Times.

As a result, developments like the Occupy movement and gay marriage seem almost to erupt in The Times, overloved and undermanaged, more like causes than news subjects.

The paper’s bias on cultural issues always been more profound than its bias on other issues. This may be partly due to the fact that the paper’s editors hold consistent and clear positions on social issues, and so its dedication to those “causes” represents an animating principle of the paper’s coverage: they are part of the organization’s worldview. On other issues, the paper will usually advocate for an issue based on which party is in power. The Times will argue forcefully in favor of the filibuster when the Democrats need it, but against it once the Democrats have virtually unfettered power in the Congress and White House. The Times will argue in favor of fiscal responsibility when a Republican president presides over a federal deficit, but argue against restraining spending when a Democratic White House needs ammunition for class warfare.

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Arthur Brisbane, outgoing ombudsman at the New York Times, caused a bit of a stir this weekend with his final column. As Jonathan noted, much of Brisbane’s criticism of the paper is standard fare. But one aspect of it stood out to me. Brisbane wrote:

Across the paper’s many departments, though, so many share a kind of political and cultural progressivism — for lack of a better term — that this worldview virtually bleeds through the fabric of The Times.

As a result, developments like the Occupy movement and gay marriage seem almost to erupt in The Times, overloved and undermanaged, more like causes than news subjects.

The paper’s bias on cultural issues always been more profound than its bias on other issues. This may be partly due to the fact that the paper’s editors hold consistent and clear positions on social issues, and so its dedication to those “causes” represents an animating principle of the paper’s coverage: they are part of the organization’s worldview. On other issues, the paper will usually advocate for an issue based on which party is in power. The Times will argue forcefully in favor of the filibuster when the Democrats need it, but against it once the Democrats have virtually unfettered power in the Congress and White House. The Times will argue in favor of fiscal responsibility when a Republican president presides over a federal deficit, but argue against restraining spending when a Democratic White House needs ammunition for class warfare.

The editorial direction of the Times is that of a partisan journal. On most issues, then, the Times’s editors do not communicate a guiding principle to their reporters, so the bias takes the form of tone, story choice, story placement, etc. But that has never been the case with regard to social issues. The paper’s reporters generally join the paper’s editorialists–raising questions about the thorough and troubling disregard to journalistic ethics and traditional practices–in cheerleading for such “causes.” Both Brisbane’s column and Times editor Jill Abramson’s response acknowledge the fact that on social issues, New Yorkers—or, to be more accurate, the New Yorkers the paper wishes to acknowledge, often at the exclusion of much of the city—see things differently than the rest of the country.

Because this bias on social issues isn’t hidden by the paper, Brisbane’s comments are not only not controversial, but in the media environment in which the Times operates, constitute a badge of honor.

More interesting by far is Brisbane’s inclusion of the “Occupy” movement with that of the issue of marriage equality. A perfect example came on July 13, when the Times published an absurd puff piece on the establishment of an Occupy Wall Street summer camp, run by a couple of bored radicals.

This was eight months after even the mainstream media became forced to report on the widespread revelations of sexual assault taking place at the Occupy camps. To make matters worse, the camp organizers, rather than help the victims of sexual violence, established the policy of aiding the escape of the rapists by ordering them quietly out of the camps to prevent unwanted attention from the police. Though Mayor Bloomberg was far too tolerant of the violent, anarchic protest camps, even he was forced to concede the Occupy policy of shielding rapists from the police was “despicable.”

So how did the Times reporter covering the Occupy summer camp, Alan Feuer, tackle the ridiculous notion that these people should be allowed near children? He didn’t. Any possible danger to the children goes unmentioned, but the reporter did find time for some levity, joking about how there was a “lack of sufficiently radical activities,” such as, Feuer suggests, “shoot-the-banker archery.”

Arthur Brisbane probably didn’t find jokes about murdering bankers nearly as funny as Feuer or his editors at the Times did, so this type of coverage likely inspired Brisbane to express his discomfort with treating violent radicals as earnest goofballs. On this issue, however, the Times cannot use geography as an excuse. As I wrote earlier this month, New Yorkers have been catching up to the rest of the country in their loathing of Occupy. Even longtime fans of the Times like Brisbane find the paper’s extremism on this issue troubling.

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Stating the Obvious About NY Times Bias

Arthur Brisbane has often been too much of a fan of the New York Times to cause all that much trouble during his two-year tenure as its public editor. That comes through even in his swan song column published today. But give Brisbane credit for the ability to recognize the paper’s obvious liberal bias. That is praiseworthy but though the column is another benchmark in the confirmation of the Times’s ideological tilt, it is probably even more interesting that those who are in charge of the institution are still in a state of denial about it.

Even before copies of the paper with Brisbane’s column in it were delivered to newsstands, Times executive editor Jill Abramson was publicly disputing Brisbane’s unexceptionable statement to the media claiming that the paper’s coverage of issues was as “straight” as her predecessor Abe Rosenthal demanded of his staff in the past. If anything, Abramson’s claim tells us all we needed to know about the smug, self-satisfied culture of the Times that Brisbane wrote about. There is no hope of correcting the corrosive and all-pervasive liberal bias in the Grey Lady on her watch. Indeed, if Abramson’s comments about her expectations for Brisbane’s successor to Politico’s Dylan Byers are any indication, Times editors and reporters should expect even less guff from new public editor Margaret Sullivan than they got from Brisbane.

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Arthur Brisbane has often been too much of a fan of the New York Times to cause all that much trouble during his two-year tenure as its public editor. That comes through even in his swan song column published today. But give Brisbane credit for the ability to recognize the paper’s obvious liberal bias. That is praiseworthy but though the column is another benchmark in the confirmation of the Times’s ideological tilt, it is probably even more interesting that those who are in charge of the institution are still in a state of denial about it.

Even before copies of the paper with Brisbane’s column in it were delivered to newsstands, Times executive editor Jill Abramson was publicly disputing Brisbane’s unexceptionable statement to the media claiming that the paper’s coverage of issues was as “straight” as her predecessor Abe Rosenthal demanded of his staff in the past. If anything, Abramson’s claim tells us all we needed to know about the smug, self-satisfied culture of the Times that Brisbane wrote about. There is no hope of correcting the corrosive and all-pervasive liberal bias in the Grey Lady on her watch. Indeed, if Abramson’s comments about her expectations for Brisbane’s successor to Politico’s Dylan Byers are any indication, Times editors and reporters should expect even less guff from new public editor Margaret Sullivan than they got from Brisbane.

While lauding the professionalism of its staff and questioning whether its standards can withstand the gravitational pull of social media, the departing ombudsman was willing to face up to the reality of Times group-think about important issues:

As for humility, well, The Times is Lake Wobegon on steroids (everybody’s way above average). I don’t remember many autopsies in which, as we assembled over the body, anyone conceded that maybe this could have been done differently. …

I also noted two years ago that I had taken up the public editor duties believing “there is no conspiracy” and that The Times’s output was too vast and complex to be dictated by any Wizard of Oz-like individual or cabal. I still believe that, but also see that the hive on Eighth Avenue is powerfully shaped by a culture of like minds — a phenomenon, I believe, that is more easily recognized from without than from within.

When The Times covers a national presidential campaign, I have found that the lead editors and reporters are disciplined about enforcing fairness and balance, and usually succeed in doing so. Across the paper’s many departments, though, so many share a kind of political and cultural progressivism — for lack of a better term — that this worldview virtually bleeds through the fabric of The Times.

As a result, developments like the Occupy movement and gay marriage seem almost to erupt in The Times, overloved and undermanaged, more like causes than news subjects.

This conclusion should come as no surprise to anyone who reads the paper. Conservatives may take exception to his contention that the Times’s political coverage is as fair as he states. I will concede that the paper has certainly not been quite as biased in 2012 as it was in 2008 when the historic candidacy of Barack Obama was treated in much the same way that he diagnosed the coverage of Occupy and other liberal causes. But that is to damn the paper with faint praise. Nevertheless, Brisbane has made an important point about the way liberal bias is about more than skewing the news to the advantage of the Democrats.

We can only hope that his successor will follow up on this insight and spend her time the paper trying to highlight the problem. However, the paper has said it plans “to shift the job’s focus toward more engagement with the reader online and through social media.” Presumably that means less time flaying the Times’s staff for its obvious failings and more time on mollifying and entertaining the paper’s core liberal readership. If so, the public editor post will become as irrelevant as Abramson’s lame denials of bias.

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