In one of the most controversial decisions in recent media history, the New York Times fired Jill Abramson, the paper’s executive editor, in 2014. Abramson had a long and highly regarded career at the paper, which included a stint running the Washington bureau. Her firing sparked a discussion about the way women in leadership positions are treated. It also led to pushback from the paper, which claimed that Abramson was fired not because of her gender but because she had been a poor manager.
Abramson is now working on a book about the future of media, teaching journalism at Harvard University, and writing occasional columns for the Guardian. I spoke with her on the phone about how the media treats Hillary Clinton, the future of the Times, and the soul-searching she did after her departure from the paper. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Isaac Chotiner: Hi, Ms. Abramson.
Jill Abramson: Just call me Jill.
You just wrote about Hillary Clinton. Do you feel a certain solidarity with her?
Do I feel a certain solidarity with her?
I don’t know if I’d describe it as solidarity, but I think she has talked about a double standard being applied to women who hold powerful positions. I have felt that same double standard being applied to me.
Are the double standards applied to Clinton coming from the press?
There’s so much criticism. It comes from the press, but it is also coming from other people, and so much of the criticism of Clinton is personal and based on stylistic issues and how authentic she is or isn’t.
Have you talked about this with your friend Maureen Dowd?
Yeah, Maureen Dowd and I have discussed Hillary Clinton for years and years.
She can be a little tough on Hillary for those very reasons.
You know [laughs]. I’ll let your comment stand. I think Maureen is one of the great talents and she seems to be clear-eyed and quite tough and she is an equal opportunity critic.
You’ve recently been embedding yourself with various news organizations, correct?
I’ve been reporting intensely for a book. I haven’t embedded for weeks at a time anywhere, but I have observed and spent quite a bit of time at a number of news organizations.
I know you spent time at BuzzFeed. What did you make of it?
I think that BuzzFeed is a superinteresting place that obviously is, relatively speaking, one of the digital newcomers. In terms of their model, they’re trying to do two things at once that are difficult, but I think at many points they’re succeeding. They’re trying to build a mass viral audience for content like their quizzes. But under Ben Smith’s leadership they’re also trying to do in-depth quality journalism at the level of the Washington Post or the New York Times. They’ve got a really big investigative group.
There was an interesting piece written for New York by Ann Friedman after you left the Times. The headline was, “Jill Abramson Will Never Know Why She Got Fired.” The idea was that women basically never know why they’re let go, and whether it was about sexism, or something else. Do you feel that way?
I don’t really feel that way, and I want to emphasize that that was, in relative terms, a long time ago, and I am very much sort of over it. For a period of time after I was fired I spent a lot of time thinking about this and, you know, in some ways, that thinking was painful, but I think it also helped me sort of understand some of the reasons that both the people who worked above me at the Times and frankly, some of the people who worked for me in the newsroom, found fault with my management style. I think I did not do enough listening, especially to the people who were on the masthead and were part of my team, and I regret that. Even though I’m not anybody’s boss right now, both in my teaching at Harvard and working on this book, I’ve tried to make sure that I listen more than talk. So, you know, I don’t really feel that it’s such a mystery, I guess I would say.
I’ve seen you suggest that the reason you were fired had to do with you pushing back against people at the paper who wanted to do more native advertising and the like. Are you saying it was about your management?
I think there were quite a few ingredients, and I had some disagreements over some issues, but it was a mix of things, and I’ve tried to learn about myself from that experience and test my own resilience. I’m now very much back doing other things, and I don’t dwell on it.
Managing people is a hard thing to do. Do you think your flaws were judged more harshly than a man’s flaws would have been?
There are many studies that show that as women achieve power and get promoted and get more powerful, that their likability quotient goes down.
Do you miss managing people?
I miss aspects of it. I miss the excitement of leading a team on a big story. I miss being in a big bustling newsroom.
Who are the women at the Times now that you think could be good future successors to Dean Baquet?
So many of the journalists at the Times impressed me, and I think that a few of them are perfectly plausible successors and would be ready on Day One to both manage the Times and do the news coverage. I don’t think that Dean Baquet is going anywhere. Lydia Polgreen is terrific; she’s one of the deputy foreign editors. Alissa Rubin, who is one of the foreign correspondents. She won the John Chancellor Award a few months ago, and I went to the dinner celebrating her many achievements. I went to Kabul and saw how she managed the Kabul bureau so well, and she did a fantastic job in Iraq as well. She had to deal with many different kinds of personalities. She is terrific. I know I’ll be kicking myself that I didn’t mention others.
What did you make of Madeleine Albright saying that there is a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women?
The first column I wrote for the Guardian was about the disconnect between younger women and Hillary Clinton and how she’s doing fine with the older generation. I don’t think there’s any point in scolding younger women. I think that the better thing is to really find ways to show Hillary Clinton’s stance on the issues and things she could actually get done. [That] would be very relevant and would be something that could help a lot of younger women.
How do you think the media has covered Trump? It feels like a media failure on any number of levels.
I don’t see my current role as a critic of the press. I will say something that is revealing, which is that in the course I teach on journalism, we focus very intensely on reading. Our next class is focused on political profiles, and I had a really hard time finding a very in-depth profile or piece on Trump. I ended up assigning a very recent piece that was in the Washington Post. It’s part of a cool series that they’re doing on decision moments of the various candidates, and the one on Trump was by Marc Fisher, who is great, and it was about how he decided to do The Apprentice, to do reality TV, and what it reveals about him. It was very good, but it was very hard to find a piece on Trump that I really felt dug deeply or was revelatory about him.