Two years ago, Ken Auletta took the subway with Jill Abramson on her first day of work as editor of The New York Times (at the time, he was writing a profile of Abramson for The New Yorker.) So the two already had a comfortable rapport when they sat down at Saturday’s New Yorker Festival event to talk about changes in the Times and in journalism since that subway ride.
In the last two years, Abramson said that the Times has focused on “enriching our storytelling and narrative powers” by weaving video, moving graphics, and other digital components into its online stories. The most talked-about article in that style has been Snow Fall, a Pulitzer Prize-winning multimedia work that Auletta brought up later in the interview.”It’s not an exaggeration to say we’re creating a new way of reading,” Abramson said.
Even as the Times works on innovative ways to present journalism, Abramson is navigating a political environment that often pits the industry against national security. Recently, the Times withheld several names and location details when reporting on a terrorist threat that shut down embassies in the Middle East. Abramson defended her call to keep the information secret after administration officials insisted the report would compromise “a live channel of information.” “Basically, we were told if the Times published this that we would have blood on our hands,” said Abramson. She complied (“with reluctance,” she added), but the administration dropped its request after McClatchy Newspapers published the details two days later.
Still, Abramson went to Washington herself after the incident to meet with senior administration officials, including Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. “It will sound corny to you, but I actually spoke to him about going back to the history of the Pentagon Papers,” she told Auletta, explaining she felt that no one was making the case “about why it’s important when there’s an ongoing war on terror being waged… to keep the public informed about the parameters of that conflict.”
Keeping the public informed has become harder under the Obama administration, Abramson said. “It’s just a fact that the Obama administration has initiated seven criminal leak investigations, which is more than double the amount of leak investigations filled in all the previous administrations combined,” she responded after Auletta asked about increased prosecution of journalists under the current government. “There’s no argument over the fact that these investigations have a chilling effect.”
“It’s made the normal discourse between journalists and government officials very tamped down and uncomfortable,” Abramson said, dismissing the notion that officials throw reporters “goody bags” of government secrets. “There’s nothing that [Obama]’s actually said that is very revealing of why he’s taken such an extreme course in these cases.”
On the Manning and Snowden leak controversies, Abramson was also straightforward. In response to Auletta’s question —“On balance, were they a public service?”—she answered in the affirmative. Referring to the ongoing NSA leaks, she believes that “the breadth of eavesdropping that goes on is something that people should know.”
Abramson had little interest in smaller points of contention, including whether bloggers like the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald are legitimate news sources—“I’m not terribly hung up with the idea of who can call themselves a journalist,” she said—and the hard-to-shake Politico article calling her abrasive and condescending.
She did express concern over the horse-race style of political reporting.”I worry that politics is covered almost like sports, in a relentless ‘who’s-winning-who’s-losing’ kind of way,” she said. “We have come to prize what I call scooplets instead of real scoops.”
“But the Times is guilty of that as well?” probed Auletta. She concurred. “So why don’t you end it?” he continued. “You’re the boss.”
Abramson paused. “I don’t know. Can I go home now?” she asked him. “This is starting to feel a little like a root canal.” Auletta chuckled and the audience laughed. Abramson turned to them. “See? I’m not abrasive,” she countered dryly. “I’m humorous.”
Watch a video of the event here: