Is This What We Really Should Ask About the ‘New York Times’ Firing of Jill Abramson?

The Grey Lady got rid of a lady boss who inspired many.

(Photo: Kena Betancur/Reuters)

May 15, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Eliza Krigman is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post. She writes about politics, business, and lifestyle issues.

While questions still swim around Jill Abramson’s abrupt firing from her job as the executive editor of The New York Times—fueled by varying anonymous and unconfirmed accounts of her shortcomings as a manager—the one we should all be asking might be, is Dean Baquet indeed the better leader when it comes to charm and grace under fire?

After all, the newly appointed executive editor slammed the wall and fled the newsroom last year after then-boss Abramson disapproved of his choices on story placement—an altercation he acknowledges. She called the stories he pushed “boring,” and Baquet didn’t just have a “moment”: He left the building for the day and didn’t show up to the editors’ daily afternoon meeting.

Of course, the idea that Baquet has a serious temper problem because of one incident is an unkind assessment. I don’t know him and won’t wager any guesses about his personality. Maybe he simply found it difficult to work under a decisive and tough female editor who was unapologetic about her point of view. I know I have been told a heckuva lot worse by editors, and it didn’t cause me to hit the wall and storm out of the building.

Many of the stories subsequent to Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr.’s sacking of Abramson on Wednesday have gone to pains to analyze Abramson’s management style and the particulars of her relationships with Baquet and Sulzberger. While many pointed to a Politico story that chronicled the wall-slamming incident as evidence of Abramson’s challenges managing the newsroom, few questioned Baquet’s on-the-record shortcomings in behavior.

In fact, it seems the only one to admonish Baquet for that outburst was him.

“I feel bad about that,” Baquet told Politico at the time. “The newsroom doesn’t need to see one of its leaders have a tantrum.”

Yes, a public tantrum, folks. In a story in which there is practically a forensic analysis taking place over whether Abramson was too abrasive, that Baquet’s outburst has been overlooked points to the invisible privilege that men enjoy in the workplace. A male moment of anger just isn’t something to dwell on.

The way journalists have covered this episode shines light on why the Abramson dismissal is so disconcerting for women.

In the Times’ own newsroom, young female journalists who cobbled together a networking club called the Old Girls Club recall being wowed when Abramson showed up to the occasional happy hour of about 40 staffers, Amanda Hess wrote for Slate. Contrary to reports that she was bitchy or polarizing, “To many women at The New York Times, Jill Abramson was everything.”

As Olga Khazan pointed out in The Atlantic, research shows that “people tend to resist female leaders who are direct and assertive.” When one of the most powerful women in the world loses her job, when she was known for being direct and assertive, it sends warning signals that double standards for men and women are alive and well in the workplace.

It feeds the notion that collectively, women are suffering from a catch-22: To get to the top you must be pushy and tough, but once you get there those qualities could be your downfall.

Of course, this story is a lot more complicated than Abramson’s approach to management and her relationship with Baquet or Sulzberger. Anonymous sources have said another point of contention was an alleged pay discrepancy between Abramson and her predecessor, Bill Keller—a claim that was out-and-out denied in a memo from Sulzberger to his staff on Thursday. Sulzberger told staffers that “in 2013, her last full year in the role, [Abramson’s] total compensation package was more than 10 percent higher than that of her predecessor, Bill Keller, in his last full year as Executive Editor, which was 2010.”

To what extent gender politics played a role, we may never know. But the concern about what happens after the most powerful woman in media gets fired is real and valid.