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The Media’s Reporting on Jill Abramson Is as Complicated as Her Firing

It was an abrupt change in leadership at The New York Times on Wednesday afternoon, when the staff gathered to hear that Executive Editor Jill Abramson was out, effective immediately, and that Dean Baquet would be the new managing editor. Abramson was not in the room, and she did not give a goodbye speech.

There was no why here. The first report to come over the wires about why Abramson was fired was from The New Yorker‘s Ken Auletta, and the information was explosive:

Several weeks ago, I’m told, Abramson discovered that her pay and her pension benefits as both executive editor and, before that, as managing editor were considerably less than the pay and pension benefits of Bill Keller, the male editor whom she replaced in both jobs. “She confronted the top brass,” one close associate said, and this may have fed into the management’s narrative that she was “pushy,” a characterization that, for many, has an inescapably gendered aspect.

So, potentially, the first female executive editor of The New York Times was, in essence, fired because she was asking for more money? It’s an unconfirmed case of gender, power, and inequality causing a crisis at the nation’s best liberal newspaper, and that discrepancy between ideology and reality is depressing — not to mention absolute catnip for a million speculative pieces. The story appears to have legs: BuzzFeed got a copy of the internal report developed by Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger’s son, A.G. Sulzberger, about where the Times stands in 2014 and how it’s losing ground online to sites like… BuzzFeed.

Rebecca Traister, who’s experienced at watching what happens when powerful women seek and/or obtain positions of leadership (her book on the 2008 Presidential election, Big Girls Don’t Cry, plays as tragedy regarding Hillary Clinton), wrote a smart piece at The New Repubic. She notes the ugliness behind Abramson’s firing; how the top brass didn’t make any effort to compliment what she’s done for the paper, and how that differed from the unceremonious firing of previous editors like Howell Raines (who had Jayson Blair under his watch, for one). “But what’s also sad, and important to note, is what it means to have so few women and people of color in these positions,” Traister writes. “Because the paucity of representation makes each one of the representatives come to mean so much more — both when they rise and when they fall.”

There are shades of Traister’s book in this event, the way that the woman in power is seen quite differently from her male rival. Kate Aurthur of BuzzFeed also notes that the relationship between Abramson and Baquet has shades of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, where there’s a glee around the Tracy Flick-esque woman’s failure.

Ever since Abramson ascended to the top role at the Times, coverage on her has been all over the place. She has been called “intimidating” and “brusque” repeatedly, even in a lengthy 2011 New Yorker profile by Auletta, which is firmly pro-Abramson. She has a distinctive voice, which leads to some ridiculous descriptions, like this one, from a 2013 Newsweek piece called “Good Jill, Bad Jill,” calling Abramson a “petite woman who speaks in an exaggerated Upper West Side drawl that evokes The Nanny meets Harvard.”

An April 2013 Politico piece by Dylan Byers, which details a fight between Abramson and Baquet in which Baquet ended up punching a wall, lends itself to sexist guff:

In recent months, Abramson has become a source of widespread frustration and anxiety within the Times newsroom. More than a dozen current and former members of the editorial staff, all of whom spoke to POLITICO on the condition of anonymity, described her as stubborn and condescending, saying they found her difficult to work with. If Baquet had burst out of the office in a huff, many said, it was likely because Abramson had been unreasonable.

(Baquet is later quoted as saying: “I think there’s a really easy caricature that some people have bought into, of the bitchy woman character and the guy who is sort of calmer… That, I think, is a little bit of an unfair caricature.”)

As part of the settlement behind Abramson’s firing, neither side is giving specifics as to why there’s been a change up top. It lends a bittersweet edge to Dean Baquet’s appointment — he is the first African-American editor of the Times, and that’s a big deal. But it’s also impossible not to think about things as simple as that Saturday Night Live sketch with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler as Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton, when you dive into the weird tone of the coverage of Abramson, the way that she was always cited as unfriendly and intimidating, rather than as a hard worker who gets the job done. It’s slanted, and it feels gendered — she was also a mentor, concerned with bringing other women up with her, installing formidable female editors in powerful positions, and making an effort with the younger class of female reporters just beginning at the Times.

All of which is to say, we still have a long way to go, baby — at least regarding women ascending to the top job in media. But I hope that Abramson’s legacy, as it develops beyond the messy and depressing media gossip of this week, can be something meaningful, showing that the first woman to run the New York Times expanded coverage of the world that we live in now, in print and online.

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