Jill Abramson has been one of two managing editors at the New York Times for 11 months. Prior to that, she was the Times’ Washington bureau chief for three years. She spent ten years at the Wall Street Journal, and prior to that was editor-in-chief of Legal Times from 1986 to 1988. She is co-author of two books: “Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas,” and “Where Are They Now: The Story of the Women of Harvard Law, 1974.” Abramson spoke with us as part of our continuing series of interviews with reporters, editors and commentators covering the election.
Brian Montopoli: The Times is sometimes portrayed as a “liberal” newspaper — in a recent Pew study, it was identified by 20 percent of journalists as such, which was more than any other publication. How do you respond to that? Do you think it’s fair to put you on one side of the ideological divide and, say, Fox News Channel or the New York Post on the other?
Jill Abramson: The thing about Fox News is they present themselves as they’re fair, and we’re liberal, which I think isn’t right. But look, I spent a decade at the Wall Street Journal, which has the reputation of being a conservative newspaper, mainly because of their editorial page. And I think in some ways the Times’ definition as a liberal paper also, in part, flows from the bent of the editorial page. And in both cases I think I worked with political reporters who called the shots as they saw them and did not write their stories with an ideological slant. I haven’t seen that [slant] either at the Journal or the New York Times.
BM: In what areas could the Times’ campaign coverage improve? Is there anything you wish the paper had done differently in its coverage of this campaign to date?
JA: I think that an area — I don’t know if I would call it improvement — where I know we will be focusing more of our resources in a deep way is at looking especially at the Bush/Cheney record in office. That would include domestic issues as well as national security, which has obviously gotten a lot of attention. We did one very deep piece by Chris Drew and Rich Oppel which examined the new source review policy and how that evolved and the special interests that may have come to bear in shaping the Bush/Cheney environmental record. It was a very deep, well-reported piece where the reporters spent some weeks excavating every aspect, and I would like to see us do that more — and I know we will on a panoply of different issues. I’d say the same would hold true with both Senator Kerry’s and Senator Edwards’ records.
BM: In the wake of the Times’ front-page story about rumors that Cheney would be dropped from the ticket, [ABC News’ daily political news roundup] The Note put you and Bill Keller at the top of its list of “people who have incredible power in this election year to influence the entire free media cycle.” The Cheney story did seem to spur the rest of the media — and yet it relied mostly on rumor. What made it a front-page piece?
JA: That story was a kind of story we do from time to time when Washington is seized with an obsessive conversation about something and there comes a point where we don’t see any reason why the reader shouldn’t be clued into that buzz. The story actually concluded that the chances of the vice president being dropped from the ticket were, in fact, miniscule. But, nonetheless, Washington being Washington, it was all anyone was talking about, which struck us as a story. And in that case I think that kind of obsessive talk, either over the lunch table or at the kitchen table, or in the lobbying claques outside the hallways of Congress, that we were merely reflecting what was going on. We weren’t a catalyst for that discussion.
But I don’t disagree [that] the Times, whether its political news or pieces about national security or foreign affairs, has long had, because it’s respected, a sort of agenda-setting role. And we take that very seriously, and it’s part of why a lot of care and careful thinking goes into what stories appear on the front page.
BM: You used to be the Times’ Washington Bureau Chief. Do you think this has been one of the more negative campaigns in recent memory? Or has it been run-of-the-mill?