Monday, May 19, 2014

NYT Editor's Firing Raises Questions About and For Women in Journalism

The woman with the best job in American journalism lost it last week.

Jill Abramson
The reasons for the abrupt dismissal of New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson are not entirely clear, but reasonable people can agree that the manner of her firing – without a word of gratitude to the woman under whom the Times won eight Pulitzer Prizes – was particularly harsh.  That has plunged the New York Times into the losing end of a PR debacle that has smudged the ascent of Abramson’s successor, Dean Baquet, the first African American to lead the Times’ newsroom.

Abramson was the first woman to lead the NYT newsroom and the ugliness surrounding her departure is tantamount to an earthquake.  Speculation has ranged from conflict arising from her apparent discovery of being paid less than her predecessor, which the Times has denied, and asking for more compensation; from resisting penetration through the news-business firewall by the business side of the newspaper; and by being a demanding boss who could be brusque, even rude.  None of this rises to the level of a firing offense.

In a thoughtful commentary, former Des Moines Register Editor Geneva Overholser, also the former director of the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California, wrote:

“What happened in this case, according to the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., is that his editor, Abramson, had to leave because of her management style. But, really: Editors are famed for being difficult.  Every journalist has stories about newsroom leaders throwing fits – or, better, potted plants. Hot tempers, arrogance, polarization:  these have practically been job requirements for editors.  I’m not saying this is a good thing.  I’m saying that it’s striking that we’d become sensitive to the unpleasantness only when a woman makes it to the top.”

It hasn’t gone unnoticed how few women are in the top jobs at major American news organizations, or how long it took a woman to get to the top rung at the New York Times. In a letter to Abramson, the president of the Journalism and Women Symposium, said, “We could not let this moment pass before saying loud and clear that we support women in journalism leadership positions, we support efforts to get equal pay for equal work and we support you.”  It was signed “Lauren M. Whaley and the rest of the pushy, brusque, stubborn and abrasive journalists of JAWS.”

Journalism seems to remain a treacherous place for women seeking to move the business to where it needs to go. Why?  Inherent bias? Old boys’ network?  Lingering notions that women are still less capable of covering politics, economics, sports?  Analyses of news content continue to show that women write about these subjects far less frequently than men.  Does this happen by accident?

In a great piece that tackles these issues, “Editing While Female,” Susan Glasser said, “We like to pretend it’s different now, that Hillary Clinton really did shatter that glass ceiling into thousands of pieces. But it’s not true. There are shockingly few women at the top anywhere in America, and it’s a deficit that is especially pronounced in journalism, where women leaders remain outliers, category-defying outliers who almost invariably still face a comeuppance.”

Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.’s most recent statement about the matter blamed Abramson for lousy management that was risking the loss of newsroom talent, denying that gender bias played a role.  The blame game goes on. Abramson moved a lot of women into senior positions at the time during her three years as editor.  We’ll see how long it takes for another to get a shot at the executive editor’s chair at the New York Times.  It took 160 years for the first one to get there.