Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Jill Abramson Story: Turmoil at the New York Times

The New York Times is in managerial turmoil. One understands that right thinking people are enjoying in some well-deserved schadenfreude. A conservative would have to have a heart of stone not to feel some joy at the spectacle of his ideological nemesis floundering on the shoals of political correctness.

Or so it seems. By now, the story of Jill Abramson’s abrupt firing from the New York Times has become a national conversation. Charges and countercharges are flying through the mediasphere. Most of them seem to involve sexism.

Was Abramson’s firing a feminist issue?

Was Abramson paid less than her male counterparts? Was her compensation—as opposed to her salary—commensurate with that of others who occupied the same positions? Was she treated differently because she was a woman? Would a man who behaved as she behaved also have been considered abrasive and divisive and combative?

Is the Times run by a bunch of sexist pigs who could not deal with a powerful woman or did Abramson blow up her career by applying what she learned at the Sheryl Sandberg School of Leaning In.

Lest you imagine that I made that up, The New York Observer’s Ken Kurson quotes an anonymous source who explains part of the problem Arthur Sulzberger had with Jill Abramson:

“What Jill was doing was going to Silicon Valley and hanging out with Sheryl Sandberg at her house and doing all this lean-in stuff and hanging out with Arianna Huffington and going to fashion shows and being photographed and ‘being Jill Abramson.’ It rubbed Arthur the wrong way. And it rubbed the newsroom the wrong way, because they didn’t think the editor of the Times should be cozying up to someone that the Times aggressively reports on like Facebook. You’d see her at the White House at state dinners as a guest of the president, and it raised red flags. You see her doing interviews on NPR with Alec Baldwin about ‘being Jill Abramson,’ and it just rubbed people the wrong way.”

Apparently, Abramson thought that primping and preening was part of her job. She seemed to believe that she was the face of the Times. Thus, she seemed to believe that it was all about her.

Also, she seemed to believe that it was all about feminism, about liberal politics, about the great issues of our time, like gender pay inequality.

When Abramson hired a lawyer to contest the disparity between her salary and that of her predecessor, her boss did not appreciate her exercise in leaning in. He took the gesture to be adversarial, not cooperative. Abramson was showing that her first loyality was not to the Times, but to the feminist cause.

It’s one thing to ask whether a woman can function effectively as an upper level manager. About that the answer seems clearly to be Yes. It’s quite another to ask whether a feminist, a woman with an ideological agenda can simultaneously be loyal to her company and to her cause.

Lloyd Grove reported on this aspect:

For Sulzberger, whose aristocratic family forebears fostered a WASPy corporate culture in which talk of filthy lucre was considered indecorous, a confrontation over money was bad enough. 

But it must have been galling that the woman he had elevated to the most influential perch in journalism, in whom he had placed all of his trust as the steward of the sacred Times brand, would engage the adversarial services of a lawyer, with the implicit threat of litigation.

Was Abramson engaging in political theatre? Did she take the idea of social justice a bit too far? Was she so involved with her ideology that she ceased to know what it meant to be executive editor of the Times? Did Sulzberger feel that he had been Sandberged?

And then there is the question of her summary dismissal. It appears that Abramson was tossed out on her ear, without being given a chance to save face.

Megan McArdle writes:

She seems to have been given no opportunity to address the newsroom, no fig leaf to resign, no sinecure consultancy to a department no one cares about. Indeed, management seems to be going out of its way not to say nice things about her. That’s less than Howell Raines got after he presided over Jayson Blair's falsifications and plagiarisms and Rick Bragg's high-profile violation of dateline and byline rules. Which of her offenses was so grave that higher-ups are going to such extraordinary lengths to humiliate her? It’s very hard for me not to suspect an element of masculine umbrage to this, a determination that Abramson should not merely be let go, but also put in her place.

Ken Kurson quoted a business-side source, to roughly the same effect:

“I don’t know if Arthur Sulzberger is a misogynist. Jill really is an abrasive character, and she has this disapproving look all the time. But the thing about Jill is that Arthur knew exactly what he was getting before he hired her. And consider this: He fired Janet Robinson, point blank, first woman CEO of the New York Times Company. He fires the first woman editor of The New York Times, point blank, out the door. He fired Carla Robbins, who was the deputy editor of the editorial page. It’s not like Arthur said, ‘Hey, we’re gonna eliminate your job, and you have a month or two to leave.’ It’s like, ‘Goodbye, go home.’ You don’t treat people who have done nothing wrong like that. 

If this is true, it speaks ill of Arthur Sulzberger. And yet, he hired these women. If they were not up to their respective jobs—surely that is possible—then he bears the responsibility.

For all we know the women in question were given their jobs because they were women, not because they were the most qualified.

Other sources suggest that Abramson rejected an offer of a face-saving exit. Gabriel Sherman described a different scenario in New York Magazine:

Sulzberger then offered Abramson what he wanted her to see as an olive branch. "We want to make this as easy as possible for you," he told her, according to sources with knowledge of the exchange. But Abramson quickly rejected the overture. Sulzberger would not be allowed to couch his move as a bland corporate reorganization. If he wanted her out, he would have to fire her.

"I'm not going to say I'm stepping down," she told Sulzberger.

When given the choice between conciliation and drama, Abramson chose drama. Perhaps that explains why she was fired. Isn’t her refusal to keep up appearances of a piece with her reputation for being abrasive and for being unwilling to work with others?

One gains the impression that Abramson thought that making a political point was more important than running a major newspaper. And one gets the impression that her feminism did not serve her well.

It taught her how to martyr herself for a cause. If she could not be the face of the Times she could launch a major national conversation about underpaid female high-level executives. Feminism did not teach her how to be an effective executive.

From a feminist perspective, the patriarchy is aligned against women leaders. Feminists believe that the patriarchs have rigged the game so that a woman is damned if she acts like a man and damned if she acts like a woman.

If a woman takes that mindset into the workplace, the chances are excellent that she will fail.

First, there is a difference between exercising leadership and feeling a need to project a persona that bespeaks leadership.

A leader sets policy and puts together a team to implement it. It can be done without the leader raising his or her voice.

Second, leadership is about negotiating differences, not dramatizing conflict. Of course, a woman can do this work... but only if her ideology has not taught her to see the world in terms of class conflict.

Third, a woman who becomes abrasive and confrontational is often trying to pretend to lead like she believes a man leads. Under the circumstances she will not be respected because she will look like she does not know who she is. Eventually, someone will call her bluff.

4 comments:

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Sam L. said...

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Sam L. said...

So, it seems Kurson is saying she was putting herself up as the public face of the NYT, schmoozing up a storm, becoming bigger than the NYT.

"Did Sulzberger feel that he had been Sandberged?" GOOD ONE, Stuart!

McArdle and Kurson seem to indicate she not only rubbed Pinch the wrong way, she used a wood rasp to do it.

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