Jill Abramson on Fox News, “attack politics,” and the influence of the New York Times

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?

JA: I think it’s been somewhat negative but I don’t know if it strikes me at this point as being anomalously so. I think of the South Carolina primary in 2000 — that was very negative, the Bush versus McCain stuff. I’m old enough that when I began in the political reporting business I worked in the election unit of NBC News during the 1980 election [which was] very hard fought, in which NCPAC [National Conservative Political Action Committee] first surfaced as a potent attack machine and an awful lot of Democratic incumbents lost their seats in an onslaught of negative direct mail and negative attack ads. So I think negative, so-called “attack politics” has been part of the landscape for as long as I’ve been covering this stuff.

BM: We’re curious: which section of the Sunday Times do you read first?

JA: That’s an odd question to ask me because, by virtue of my job, I get the joy of seeing the Book Review a whole week before anyone else. I now am looking at the Book Review not for this Sunday but for the following one.

But, to answer your question seriously, and as a reader, the first thing I read in the Sunday paper is Maureen Dowd’s column.

BM: And why is that?

JA: Because I’m always dying to know what she has picked to write about. And I always know that her column will give me both a brilliant insight and a laugh.

BM: How involved do you get in setting the course and tenor of campaign coverage? Have you and the other editors intervened at all this campaign season — voicing concerns that reporters have too easily fallen for spin, gotten trapped in the echo chamber, leaned on hackneyed storylines, or anything of the sort?

JA: Occasionally, yes. I mean, I haven’t felt that has been a problem with our coverage with any kind of frequency. But my background — for years I covered money and politics. I’ve been a political reporter myself since 1980. I’m still fascinated by politics. I love the campaign story. But I’m wired as an investigative reporter, so I would say the area of the coverage where my involvement has been robust has been on the enterprise investigative front.

BM: Which papers, other than the Times, do you think have the best political coverage? Are there any reporters out there that you think are particularly good?

JA: I think that the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times all have strong political coverage. Obviously, having spent ten years at the Wall Street Journal, I’m particularly partial, beyond our own wonderful team here at the Times, to many of their reporters, who were my colleagues. I think John Harwood is a superb political reporter and analyst. It is a delight to me when Gerry Seib still weighs in on the campaign. I think Jackie Calmes, while she is occupied filling the politics and policy page with the Washington Wire and other things, is great. Jeanne Cummings has been a good addition. And as soon as Congress is gone, David Rogers is still — he is the gold standard of political reporters.

I love the Journal’s team because it’s a highly seasoned but still innovative one, because to get political stories onto the front page of the Journal they have to have a really fresh twist. It’s not just the arc of the campaign. A tactical story won’t get on the front page of the Journal. There has to be sort of a high concept. At the Washington Post, I wouldn’t feel I really knew what was going on in the campaign if I wasn’t reading [Dan] Balz. I think he’s really good. These are serious, serious political reporters. And I try to read our sister publication, the Boston Globe. I think that Anne Kornblut is very good. I think their investigative team is terrific, and I think their coverage of John Kerry the man, in terms of the biographical reporting they’ve done, has been just superb.

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.