The XX Factor

It’s Not Just About the Money: Why Jill Abramson’s Firing Really Stings

Jill Abramson, now former executive editor of the New York Times.

Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images for Wired

News reports reveal many reasons why Jill Abramson may have been fired as executive editor of the New York Times. The three main storylines that have emerged involve clashes with fellow managers over how to run the website, her unpopularity in the newsroom, and a confrontation with her bosses about how her pay and pension were considerably lower than those of her male predecessor in the job. All of these seem plausible in an era when newsrooms are tense places struggling to survive. And ultimately the decision comes down to one person, publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who can hire and fire at will. But I imagine when we become less interested in the insider details what will stand out vividly is not why she was fired but how she was fired: rapidly, unceremoniously, “brusquely”—to use a word so often applied to Abramson—with no comfort of face-saving euphemisms, “with less dignity than Judith Miller, who practically started the Iraq war,” as Kate Aurthur put it in BuzzFeed.

The story of Abramson asking for a raise seems like the least plausible reason why she got fired, and yet for many women it will be the hardest part of this incident to forget. Apparently she had learned that her pay and benefits were lower than previous executive editor Bill Keller’s and as Ken Auletta reported Wednesday, she had a lawyer make polite inquiries, “which set them off.” Now there are many reasons why Abramson may have been paid less. Maybe she’s not a good negotiator. Maybe Bill Keller came to the Times with a much higher salary. Maybe there’s subtle sexism that cues men to value other men more. Maybe it had something to do with the Times logo “T” tattooed on her back, or the fact that she told Newsweek, “They’re gonna have to take me out feet first, or chop off my head”—a strong signal to her bosses that they did not have to work very hard to keep her.

Whatever the reason, it’s hard to believe management was “set off” by her bringing the issue up. Annoyed, maybe, but they can’t be so unsophisticated as to be so horrified by a “pushy” woman that they’d want to fire her, as Auletta quotes one staffer as saying, given that it’s not often the polite ones you find in newsrooms. But the story will still resonate with women—many already inflamed at #JillAbramson. And women may express it in terms of old-fashioned sexism— “please write about how this went from a gender triumph to a gender horror story so fast”—one female Times staffer pleaded with me. But what really stings is the suspicion that there is something about office politics, salary negotiations, and the theater of charm and charisma that, even after all these years, women just don’t get. We are like Dr. Aziz, the fool in E.M. Forster’s Passage to India, who has convinced himself that he has befriended the British and understood their ways only to be “brusquely” reminded that he’s really an outsider.

It sounds like Abramson made some questionable decisions at the Times. She seems to have handled her relationship with the popular managing editor Dean Baquet, now executive editor, less than smoothly. According to BuzzFeed, she made a “power grab” for the website and had writers there report to the print side, which caused tensions. (Though, of course, that could also be seen as her integrating the print and digital news operations in an effort to improve both, but who knows.) She seems to have also alienated Mark Thompson, the CEO Sulzberger hired from the BBC. One report says she and Sulzberger never got along.

Reports about her from the newsroom have always been mixed, as I reported in an earlier Slate story. Many women were inspired by her. I’ve heard people describe her as honest, exacting, funny, loyal, and very generous. More lately, a word I heard was “depleted,” as if the more harsh, negative sides of her personality were casting a gloom on the newsroom, as if she could not quite carry the stress of the job.

Maybe that’s a good enough reason to fire someone. It would be odd if politics dictated that you weren’t allowed to fire a woman, even if she were the most powerful woman in journalism. But the way it happened makes it hard to read the newspaper’s own front-page story and not see Baquet, Sulzberger, Keller, and all the powerful men in the history of the Times on the inside and one loyal, tattooed soldier now out.