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.