Jill Abramson on Clarence Thomas, James Bennet, and Our Chaotic Media Age

Jill Abramson on a pink background.
Jill Abramson in 2015 Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Marla Aufmuth/Getty Images for LeadOn: Watermark’s Silicon Valley Conference for Women.

It’s “time to raise the possibility of impeachment” Jill Abramson writes in New York magazine’s latest cover story, and she is not referring to Donald Trump. Almost 25 years ago, Abramson and Jane Mayer wrote the book Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas, which provided background and fresh reporting on women who ended up not testifying against the Supreme Court nominee at his confirmation hearings; it also offered readers much reason to suspect that Thomas had perjured himself. In her new piece, Abramson returns to this story and offers more details about the women who have credibly accused Thomas of misconduct.

Abramson is the former Washington bureau chief, managing editor, and executive editor of the New York Times. (Her firing from the last of those positions, in 2014, sparked a major controversy about the way women in leadership roles are perceived and treated.) Now a senior lecturer in the English department at Harvard, Abramson is also a columnist at the Guardian. Her new book, about the media over the past decade, will be released later this year.

I recently spoke with Abramson by phone. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed how reporting on mistreated women hasn’t changed, the crucial thing to understand about Clarence Thomas, and why she thinks some of the recent attacks on the Times and its op-ed page have been unfair.

Isaac Chotiner: Between the time that you co-wrote Strange Justice and reporting this story, had you been thinking or writing much about Clarence Thomas specifically or the issue of workplace sexual misconduct more generally?

Jill Abramson: Jane Mayer and I co-wrote Strange Justice because it seemed so evident to both of us, as experienced investigative journalists, that Anita Hill had told the truth and that Clarence Thomas had perjured himself to gain confirmation to the court. And it just seemed like a lingering injustice to me. What moved me to write the piece in New York was some new evidence and examples of his behavior that all-the-more confirmed Anita Hill’s testimony. And I thought it was a good moment. I had some time on my hands in January to dig back in.

Is talking to women who were mistreated different now than it was when you first wrote the book?

I wish that my answer was yes, but at least for the women of my generation, who tended to be the women that I talked to for this piece, the women who had bits and pieces of information that confirmed what Anita Hill testified about, it’s no. They’re still very reluctant to talk, scared to speak truth to power. And even younger women, even a really bracing truth-teller like Moira Smith, who went on Facebook to say Thomas had groped her back in 1999 and who went public with this right before the 2016 election—even she didn’t want to talk. So, no. It’s not at all as if the #MeToo moment has opened the floodgates.

I actually felt more hopeless finishing the piece, even though the piece is partially about the idea that maybe Thomas could get impeached.

Well, I mean, in some ways I share your sense of pessimism because I don’t think there’s a chance in hell that this Senate, which won’t even touch gun control, is going to vote to impeach Clarence Thomas, even if the House in the fall went Democratic and took an impeachment vote. So, I’m a realist, too. But I guess my despair is rooted in: How did we let the extreme right wing take over all branches of this country? It’s really kind of unbelievable to me because I don’t think most Americans believe in this extreme ideology, and I think most Americans are truth-tellers and do not approve of the fact that Clarence Thomas has sat on the court all these years protected and encased by protective armor based on lies. But somehow the architecture of the right wing has become so strong and politically adept that it’s managed to seize control of the Supreme Court, the Congress, and the presidency. And I feel a tremendous sense of disappointment in my own generation, Isaac. I think that my generation, the generation that grew up in the ’60s, we were supposed to be such idealists. We were going to change the world, and look what we have.

From your reporting on Thomas, is there any aspect of his tenure on the court that has surprised you or gone differently than you would have expected?

Nothing has surprised me. After his confirmation, he put a sign up, I think on his desk, that said, “I ain’t evolving.” And what he meant is some of the Republicans who championed his confirmation said that because of his background, because he grew up poor, African American in the South, he would empathize with people, and that his positions would evolve on the court. And I actually think none of that has come to pass.

He could have just put up a “No empathy” sign.

Yeah. I think it’s the same thing.

What is your new book about?

Well, what I’m trying to do is a redo of a book that David Halberstam wrote back in the ’70s called The Powers That Be, which chronicled four news institutions. He was writing post-Watergate when the news media was at the zenith of its power. He looked at CBS, Time magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post, and what I’m doing is I’m looking at the past 10 years of digital disruption and business-model stress and fake news and increasingly partisan news, and looking at what that’s done for news institutions. And they are the Washington Post, the New York Times, BuzzFeed, and Vice.

Did the book on the whole make you feel more optimistic or pessimistic about the media’s future?

I feel more optimistic because I think the work that’s being done is better than ever and that in many ways, many more news organizations, some of which don’t have the resources of a Washington Post or the New York Times or even a BuzzFeed, are really doing superlative work in the tradition that the founders meant with the First Amendment. I just think that the environment into which they do this work and publish this work and broadcast this work has never been more difficult. It’s just chaos.

People feel inundated, and they are more mistrustful than ever of information and the news media, and the audience for news is more polarized than ever. So it’s just that the conditions into which we all put the fruits of our labors have never been more difficult, and that makes me worry. But I’m hopeful that the truth will win out and that that will change in time.

What time in the morning do you get up?

6 a.m.

What’s your morning of news consumption in 2018?

It’s all digital, and it starts with stuff I get on my email, actually. My No. 1 thing is something called News Items that a friend of mine named John Ellis at Fox News puts out really early in the morning, which is a great global aggregation of news that most of the time I don’t see anywhere else during the day. So, that’s No. 1.

So you begin with a Fox News thing?

I do. I do. It’s great. It’s a great product. Then Morning Media because it’s an early bird. Then Axios. Then the Times briefing. Then First Draft from the Times. Then the Washington Post stuff. 202 isn’t far behind.

But you’re not flipping through any newspapers?

No. No. I still read the New York Times in print but usually not until the end of the day, and then I can be relaxed and savor the arts section and the science section and all that, and the sports section, too, which does not so much anymore revolve around game scores and whatnot that I’ve already heard. And I should say I have NPR on all the while I’m reading.

This feels like a really interesting moment for the Times because it is sort of heralded as this organ of resistance against the Trump administration.


But at the same time, it feels like it’s never been more under a microscope, and it’s taking more heat from the left.

Yeah. I know. Poor [Editorial page editor] James Bennet, who I think is a genius.

Well, say more about that. What has he done for the section? Why do you think he’s a genius?

Because I think that he’s a great journalist, and I don’t think that he is wrong to include on his pages a variety of different voices. Now, I’m not saying that the tech writer who turned out to have some alt-right connections was a good choice, but the impulse is right. And this kind of wild fury that gets whipped up is not reasoned criticism, and he is a great journalist. And I think he’s added a lot of heart and pizazz to the opinion pages. And I’ve worked with him. We reported on the Clinton impeachment together back in the first days when I joined the Washington bureau. And he is a fantastic journalist.

There is definitely a bit of unreasoned criticism. But another critique has been that he is open to certain kinds of voices but not others. So, you bring in someone like Bret Stephens, who had been at the Wall Street Journal—

He hired Michelle Goldberg, too. So, it’s not just right.

I think the more serious critique of the Times would relate to the election, where some people thought the paper was much too critical of Hillary Clinton and played up the emails too much. And then you have the story several days before the election saying that the FBI saw no clear Trump-Russia link.

Well, you know, I made it my sort of ethos to not become an armchair critic of the New York Times. Lord knows there are plenty of those. And I’m a cheerleader for the institution. I think that Dean Baquet himself has said it was not a perfect performance and that the paper is redoubling its effort to do pieces out in the country, to be not out of touch with the simmering anger that is still out there that helped elect Trump. And certainly, postelection, their performance on investigating the administration and Russia has been superlative.

As for the emails, I’ve written about it myself at the Guardian, and I think, you know, there was disproportionate attention to Hillary Clinton’s emails, and I think that some of the pieces were pumped up with a little bit too much air.