Despite shaky journalism, Abramson ouster teaches lessons

Jill Abramson, the former executive editor at The New York Times, was fired on May 14. What came was a veritable maelstrom of speculation — every word of which, however, was not “fit to print.”

Northfelt-Abramson-ousterSome claim that she was fired because she decided to complain that she wasn’t paid as much as the executive editor before her — a white man named Bill Keller. Some say she left because she “leaned in” too hard and was hard to work with, with some staffers calling her words that powerful women have heard before. But how exactly did we get here, and who exactly are the players in this drama?

Abramson climbed the ranks of the Times, holding positions including investigative reporter, editor, bureau chief and managing editor. She has a Times “T” tattooed on her back and was hit by a truck in 2007. Most importantly, however, she was the first woman in the Times’s 163-year run to be the executive editor of the paper.

She and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. would butt heads time and time again as the business and editorial sides of the Times went to war against each other. The business of media, of course, is collapsing and reforming in a landscape that none of us quite understand yet.

Enter the third player in this mess: Abramson’s replacement, Dean Baquet, the former managing editor of the Times. Baquet never finished college — in direct opposition to Abramson’s Harvard degree — and he worked from the outside of the media in. However, trouble was afoot when Abramson was appointed over Baquet to lead the editorial side of the Times.

Baquet, as portrayed by this New Yorker hack job, planted seeds that led to Abramson’s termination. All of his complaints against Abramson to both of their bosses, Sulzberger, however, came from ill-seated, sexist and frankly unprofessional part of his perspective. Baquet had a reason to complain to Sulzberger: Abramson hired a co-managing editor without informing Baquet, who was the managing editor. It’s a twisted workflow and Abramson outright ignored the needs of her masthead editors.

Because of all these complicated players in the pressurized environment of a media in the throes of reinvention, there was bound to be conflict.

As juicy as all this drama is, however, is it really fair to call Abramson out for “demanding” equal pay and then throwing the business side of the Times to the wolves for not paying her equally? This accusation of sexism, if substantiated, is awful and should not be tolerated. The New Yorker and Slate both reported that gender-based inequity are to blame. However, Sulzberger noted that management failures caused Abramson’s dismissal.

Now that the record is set straight, we might as well still talk about how gender plays a role in the way business is conducted.

President Barack Obama signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law in 2009. In fact, it was the first bill he signed as president. That law allows anyone being discriminated against, and therefore paid less than they should be, to file a lawsuit within 180 days of their last paycheck.

If Abramson really saw pay inequity as a problem, she could have challenged the Times and gotten her day in court. Thanks, Obama!

However, this does not create a work environment in which women feel like they aren’t fighting tooth and nail for something given by virtue of social norms to their male counterparts.

The change here must come in terms of culture. Yes, a woman can bring in a lawyer to fight for what’s legally and morally hers. But there’s something lacking in this approach.

In the long run, we must create an atmosphere where equitable pay and equitable treatment come naturally and not at the hands of legal battles played out in the public sphere.

 

Reach the columnist at pnorthfe@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @peternorthfelt

Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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