Are female journalists up to the job of a Jill Abramson interview?

Reporters avoid unflattering discussion about her firing

Let me just say this: If I ever get publicly bounced from a job, I am heading straight for Cosmopolitan magazine. Then I’m off to see Greta Van Susteren at Fox News and then on to Katie Couric, who will be waiting at Yahoo News. Gail Sheehy, I’m hoping, can get me in Politico.

This is the route Jill Abramson has taken this past week. Ejected from the editorship at The New York Times two months ago amid accusations that her management approach was too aggressive, she is now engaged in a cheery campaign to bend public opinion her way. Her strategy, in case it’s not obvious, is to seek out prominent female journalists for a congenial discussion of her ousting, so long as there’s no serious discussion of her ousting.

So far, Abramson is choosing well. Cosmo’s Laura Brownstein and Leslie Yazel asked a series of softball questions about “tears,” “rejection,” and tips on “networking.” Gail Sheehy recounts how she and Abramson had “laughed about the management style of Abe Rosenthal,” whom Sheehy calls a tyrant legendary for his rages, rants, and homophobia. “No one dared fire him, and he only left, unwillingly, when ageism retired him at 65,” she says, asking Abramson why she should be fired for her “management style.” Sheehy quotes Abramson as responding, “It’s a double standard. I am very proud of the newsroom I ran and the people I hired.”

Van Susteren was too consumed with her battle to make President Obama look bad on government secrecy and First Amendment issues to care much about Abramson’s ordeal at The Times. Indeed, only the once-genial Katie Couric made any serious attempt to get Abramson to answer pointed questions, though it got Couric nowhere.

Here’s the thing. I don’t begrudge Abramson the right to pick the journalists she believes will give her the warmest embrace, or will accept her terms for an interview. Why shouldn’t she do that? In this case, she’s not in the role of “journalist,” she’s the newsmaker trying to spin her version of events. And on that score Abramson has a deft touch. She is not only brilliant at overseeing the news, she is also brilliant at managing the news, particularly when it’s about her. In the weeks since her firing, the public relations skirmish looks something like: Abramson 7, The New York Times 0.

But it is an absurd display of credulity and clubbiness on the part of her interviewers to take dictation on whatever Abramson says, to accept her version of highly controversial events surrounding her firing at The Times and then call it a day.

There are plenty of questions still to be asked: What about Abramson’s compensation battles with her bosses and, if true, her extraordinary decision to hire a lawyer when she was the executive editor? What warnings was she given that she might be fired? What did she tell then-managing editor Dean Baquet about the prospect of another managing editor coming in? Is his version of events complete?

I happen to be one who thinks there indeed was a double standard operating in the executive suite at The Times, and that a man would not be dismissed for his management style when his performance as a journalist was unsurpassed. But I was hoping for some better understanding of this issue when Abramson finally started speaking.

I’m beginning to think the details may never come out. Abramson has mainly dodged male reporters. And the male reporters I know would just as soon stay clear of the whole matter anyway. Most men don’t go rushing to cover tempestuous stories of sex discrimination.

That means it’s probably up to female journalists to seek complete answers to an event that’s still of no small importance in some quarters, particularly the quarters containing the young female journalists Abramson says she cares about most.

If female journalists want to be treated equitably, they should abide by their own principles of fairness. That means not giving your own a slide because you think they deserve it. Behaving otherwise is convenient, but it’s not journalism.

The author is a former managing editor of the Washington Post.

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Elizabeth Spayd is the editor in chief and publisher of CJR. Tags: , ,