This article was first published at The McAlvany Intelligence Advisor on Friday, May 16, 2014:
All was sweetness and light following the meeting on Wednesday afternoon when New York Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr. pulled the plug on his Executive Editor, Jill Abramson:
I chose to appoint a new leader for our newsroom because I believe that new leadership will improve some aspects of the management of the newsroom….
It is not about the quality of our journalism, which in my mind has never been better. Jill did an outstanding job in preserving and extending the level of excellence of our news report[ing] during her time as executive editor and, before that, as managing editor and Washington bureau chief. She’s an accomplished journalist who contributed mightily to our reputation as the world’s most important news provider.
Further, this is not about any disagreement over the direction of our digital future or any of the steps we have taken recently to create and launch new digital products and services. Jill and I agreed fundamentally about the need to embrace new platforms and new expressions of our journalism. She helped a great deal in moving the Times further into our digital future.
And Abramson responded in kind:
I’ve loved my run at the Times. I got to work with the best journalists in the world doing so much [outstanding] journalism.
If everything was so lovey-dovey, why was she canned? After all, when she was promoted to EE in September, 2011, the stock was at $5 a share. On Wednesday, before the hammer came down, it was selling at better than triple: $17.37. During her brief reign, the paper got eight Pulitzer Prizes, along with numerous accolades from her friends in the media. She had cut overhead, installed paywalls, managed the frequent crises that arose as the paper tried to shed its losing businesses, and kept the paper from going broke as it continued its transition from print to digital.
Her friendly media surrounded the issue with alternate views: In its own report of the incident, the Times said it was her management style, calling it “polarizing” and “mercurial.” Others, such as The New Yorker and Politico, said she was “condescending” and “combative,” which engendered “widespread frustration and anxiety” among her staff. She “rarely engaged” with her staff, and was “often absent,” even during periods of crisis.
Others said it was because she just found out (after nearly three years!) that she was being paid less than the man she replaced, and handled the confrontation with her publisher badly: she hired a lawyer to write to Sulzberger about the matter, apparently. This smacked of sexism in the workplace, and journos found some disgruntled female staff members who harkened back to a lawsuit in 1974 when the Times was sued by some of its female staff for not treating them fairly.
All of this just seemed a little too pat, a little too contrived, to be believable. The cited lawsuit was 40 years ago, and Abramson’s complaint about her pay turned out to be insignificantly small, and was resolved almost immediately.
It’s as if the media had the real story, but were constructing distractions and rabbit trails to push interested readers off into the ether.
It turns out that the real story is Abramson’s unguarded comment she made at Al Jazeera back in January that frosted the White House. She said:
I would say it is the most secretive White House that I have ever been involved in covering, and that includes – I spent 22 years of my career in Washington and covered presidents from President Reagan on up through now – and I was Washington bureau chief of the Times during George W. Bush’s first term.
I dealt directly with the Bush White House when they had concerns that stories we were about to run put the national security under threat. But, you know, they were not pursuing criminal leak investigations. The Obama administration has had seven criminal leak investigations.
That is more than twice the number of any previous administration in our history. It’s on a scale never seen before. This is the most secretive White House that, at least as a journalist, I have ever dealt with….
Someone connecting the dots would also have discovered that Abramson was supposed to give the commencement address to Barnard College the day before she was canned, but His Honor the Czar pushed her aside and took the address for himself. Message delivered: don’t mess with the White House!
She was living on borrowed time, and she must have known it. The final straw, however, was her attempt to bring in an assistant to work alongside the managing editor, Dean Baquet, to fulfill a recommendation made by Sulzberger’s son that she find someone to help her develop the paper’s web presence and make it profitable. She found someone, all right: Janine Gibson, head of the Guardian’s news website, which is much further along than the Times’. But Gibson had some serious baggage: she is the one who coordinated with Glenn Greenwald in getting Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s spying on American citizens published. At the Times, Snowden is considered a traitor – so the potential Gibson hire was the final straw: Abramson had to go.
But to admit these publicly as the real reasons for Abramson’s firing would simply not do, and so the media circled the wagons and created distractions and misdirections so that the curious rubes wouldn’t catch on: the White House controls the Times’ news content. Or wants to.
The new Executive Editor Baquet shouldn’t have any trouble following the party line: Don’t make waves; don’t expose the White House; and certainly don’t call them out for lack of transparency. If Baquet learns those lessons from Abramson’s surprise departure, he’s assured of a nice long tenure at the Times, which still has on its banner after all these years the ultimate deceit: “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”
The New York Times: Times Ousts Its Executive Editor, Elevating Second in Command
The New Yorker: Why Jill Abramson Was Fired
Politico: Jill Abramson ousted from New York Times
Huffington Post: Jill Abramson Fired As NY Times Editor; Replaced By Dean Baquet