You Don’t Know Jill

Politico’s story about New York Times editor Jill Abramson is wrong and possibly sexist.

New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson speaks during an interview in New York September 21, 2011.

New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson

Photo by Kena Betancur/Reuters

Hey Dylan, that story you wrote in Politico, about New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson—did you actually think that was interesting? Or that because you had the words turbulence and Times in the headline it counted as buzzy? Well, you’re wrong, Dylan. That story sucked. IT SUCKED. And I hope you are taking me seriously because I am tough, so tough I got hit by a truck and survived. Also, I’m bored now. Also honking, like an old car horn. In fact, I don’t know why you are still here. If I were you, I would leave now. But before you go, you wanna see my tattoo?

Actually, that was not me talking. That was me channeling Abramson, who, Politico’s Dylan Byers told us yesterday, is “bitchy” and “very, very unpopular.” (Also “tough,” as evidenced by the truck and the tattoo.) The Times’ managing editor Dean Baquet, in his famously gracious way, explained to Byers why it’s wrong to characterize the first female editor of the New York Times in this way. “I think there’s a really easy caricature that some people have bought into, of the bitchy woman character and the guy who is sort of calmer,” Baquet said. “That, I think, is a little bit of an unfair caricature.”

By “unfair,” I think he also means “sexist.” And in fact the evidence the Politico story presents to support its thesis that there’s “widespread frustration and anxiety within the Times newsroom” is pretty thin. To me, these sound like the complaints of some disgruntled staffers. She yelled at a photo editor. She pissed off Baquet. She was “jetting off” to Sundance during the buyouts. (Whenever I read “jetting off,” I think “disgruntled underling.”) This has not, as one reporter suggested, reached “Howell Raines-like proportions.” A Raines-esque newsroom meltdown would require a Jayson Blair—some serious, quantifiable incident that would cause people to actually lose confidence in an editor.

But my suspicion, confirmed by talking to reporters at the Times, is that the situation with Jill Abramson is a little more complicated than just sexism. Abramson, like every human being on the planet, has many sides to her personality. Yes, some reporters find her stubborn and condescending and difficult to work with. Yes, she does not have the natural charisma of Baquet, but few people do (“the best newsroom politician I’ve ever met,” one reporter told me). But she can also be honest, exacting, funny, loyal, and very generous, a side of her that comes out in Ken Auletta’s New Yorker profile from 2011. Here is how reporter Jeff Gerth described her in that story.

“She was a great team leader, a loyal friend, someone you’d want in the trenches with you. But if you didn’t meet her high professional standards you were not on her team.”

She might also be “bitchy” sometimes. I don’t know. No one I spoke to used that word. That said, it wouldn’t be all that surprising to me if, at this moment in history, when women are fairly new to such high positions, a fair number of them have some element of their personality that’s extreme. Early in her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg tells a story about how, as a child, she taught her younger brother and sister to “follow me around, listen to my monologues and scream the word ‘Right!’ when I concluded.” At her wedding, they gave a toast about this childhood game:

“Hi! Some of you think we’re Sheryl’s younger siblings, but really we were Sheryl’s first employees—employee number one and employee number two. Initially, as a one-year-old and a three-year old, we were worthless and weak. Disorganized, lazy. We would just as soon spit on ourselves as read the morning paper. But Sheryl could see that we had potential. For more than ten years, Sheryl took us under her wing and whipped us into shape …”

Sandberg’s conclusion is that it’s “unseemly for a little girl to be thought of as so … domineering.” To her, this is a story about lingering sexism, about painful social expectations, about the price girls pay for taking charge. It’s a story about people’s failure to recognize genuine leadership potential if it comes wrapped in hair bows and Mary Janes. But I’m guessing that to most people reading it, this is a story about an unusually domineering kid.

So, let’s say that these women in power do have a side to them that’s difficult and domineering. The problem is, we can’t look past that. With men, these conservative corporate institutions—the Times among them—seem to tolerate an infinite range of personalities. Abramson’s predecessor, Bill Keller, was described by his own wife as “socially autistic.” He could not have had Baquet’s natural charm either. But people got past that. They loved him anyway. David Carr, the former drug addict turned larger-than-life columnist, is unimaginable in female form. And listen to what happens to Baquet when he shows his ugly side, as recounted by Politico:

“As Washington bureau chief, he got so upset when a story didn’t make the front page that he drove his fist through the wall. (‘I never lose my temper at a person,’ he said. ‘I lose my temper at walls.’) But even this anecdote is recalled fondly.”

For many years Abramson was more popular. She was an investigative reporter and the Washington bureau chief. But running the paper is more complicated, and requires you to deal with many more situations and people. Maybe with that much going on, it’s harder to keep in check the less pleasant parts of your personality. And if you’re a woman, that’s still unforgivable. Do it too long, and suddenly, you’ll wake up to the news that “Just a year and a half into her tenure as executive editor, Abramson is already on the verge of losing the support of the newsroom.”

Luckily, popularity is not what wins you Pulitzers (the paper won four this year). As one reporter told me, “I hope this story doesn’t mean she will lose her courage.” Apparently, she hasn’t, as she wrote to me in an email today:

“I began the morning, as I always do, reading my horoscope (I’m Pisces) in The New York Post. Here is what it says, ‘You will need to put on a brave face today, especially if you get news that seems to be the opposite of what you were hoping to hear. The important word there is “seems,” because most likely it IS good news after all.’

“I read it aloud at our morning news meetings,

“Fondly, Jill.”