The only public figure who comes close in recent memory to as much public scrutiny, ridicule, character assassination and professional humiliation as departed New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson is Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. And even though he is in rehab, he still has his job.
The crack-smoking, joke-cracking, body-toppling buffoon Toronto calls its mayor has little in common with the recently departed executive editor of the New York Times, except by way of a similarly vicious reaction on social media and commentary that attempted career assassination.
And think about it: Ford literally falls down on the job while Abramson managed an editorial staff that won eight Pulitzer Prizes, including one for the previously unimaginable approach to narrative that was the multimedia extravaganza, “Snowfall.”
It is precisely this inexplicable set of parallel outcomes that makes every nuance of JillFall an abomination.
Not even Gregg Steinhafel, the former CEO, president and chairman of the board of Target, was shown the door. He was recently allowed to resign; his departure swift but polite after 35 years at the retailer. His exit was pre-empted by the hacking of 40 million credit card numbers of customers from the company’s database and the breach of the personal information of 70 million customers.
It was a failure on an entirely different scale from what Abramson was fired for. I bet they even threw him a going away party.
More than a week into the firing shock, if you are like me, you have read perhaps three or four dozen accounts and versions of commentary — some insightful, some snippy, others just plain asinine. As the dust clears and we have had time to let the news digest a bit, many of us are still speculating in the dark on the firing of the only woman in American journalism to hold the Holy Grail — that is the reigns of arguably the best newspaper in the world. A newspaper that has an historically poor record of gender equity. You would think with all the back and forth about her years of management that she had performed an egregious act of insult or blasphemy against her employer, the likes of what Donald Sterling had done against his team, his team’s allies, the NBA, professional sports, and, let’s see, all people of color.
Inquiring about compensation inequities, pushing for editorial excellence, being forthright, upfront and deliberate, and here’s the nail in her coffin — trying to hire a top female editor without consulting all the boys — why it’s a wonder they did not call for her beheading.
All this in a profession not known for nuance. Journalism is not a profession for the faint of heart. You have the story or you don’t, you have the sources or you don’t, you have everything accurately or you don’t, you meet the deadline or you don’t. It is original work or it isn’t, it is excellent or it is not, and it is groundbreaking and ahead of the competition or it is not. No oversized youth soccer trophies in this field.
I have been a journalist for going on 35 years, 45 years if you count when I had my own newspaper, The Juvenile Journal, at age 10. And yes, it was a publishing empire with a paywall — 50 subscribers paying 50 cents a year for the privilege of receiving a stapled 6-8 page newsletter in the mail each month.
In journalism school in the ’70s where I was an undergraduate and graduate student at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, we were told in no uncertain terms that the only job worth having at all — at all — was at the New York Times. Some of us made it. I never did. And I never ran a daily newspaper anywhere.
As a feature writer, associate editor, managing editor or columnist at newspapers and magazines over the past several decades, almost all of my editors were men — with a few exceptions. My male editors could be gruff, demanding, and rarely careful of anyone’s feelings. I got better because of them. Some were outrageously sexist, crude and just plain gross. Some were kind and compassionate, but only after you turned in the story you said you would. All had very high standards and my colleagues and I struggled to meet and exceed them. The expectation was that female journalists were not delicate creatures who needed “handling,” apologizes or special treatment. The understanding was that female editors would have high standards as well, and would be able to take what they gave out.
As a freelancer, I felt the women editors who scrutinized my copy at newspapers and magazines for the past 25 years were fair, inspiring and looking always for me to deliver great content for their outlet. It was not personal. Editors were always looking to edify, educate and inform the audience. If you failed at any of those objectives, they let you know and not delicately.
I met Abramson last fall at the annual Journalism & Women Symposium, an organization of women journalists I have belonged to for almost 20 years. In her keynote to the group, I found her direct and impressive. She talked about working hard to bring gender balance to the newsroom, even when someone brought up that day’s tipped see-saw tally on whowritesfor.com, a site that counts the male and female bylines of front page stories of the New York Times. And for the record on May 22, one week and one day after her departure, it was a byline tally of 31 men and 19 women. That is a better ratio than it is usually. Most days the ratio is three or four to one.
For 17 years I taught thousands of young women — and men, but mostly women — in journalism at my alma mater. I have been told I am a tough grader. I’m that way on purpose, as I believe strongly it serves no one to let it go and not demand you find another source, polish the lede, and work on making the transitions and narrative arc of a story sing. I have done my best to help shape students into marketable journalists who produce outstanding work across platforms, without apology. And I have been rewarded every day by seeing the bylines and editors’ notes of former students on venerable sites from across the globe. Some of them now edit I copy I submit to them. I understand I am not responsible for their tenacity, but I feel uplifted by their successes and they make me proud.
Certainly Abramson needs no one’s pity, and certainly not my remote rumination. She is far more successful in every measure in this profession than I will ever be. She will come out the other side of this embarrassment with congratulatory slaps on her T-tattooed back and run another journalistic enterprise (or any enterprise for that matter) with aplomb and fortitude. All the while maintaining a forthright insistence on excellence. And those of us women in journalism who consider her a rock star, will applaud.
She made it to the top of the Mt. Everest of journalism, and still, she was shoved off the glass cliff. What that proves to anyone and everyone is women can get there — and stay there — even if it is only for a few years. It is the third phase of that contract that needs vast improvement. The next time another woman of her stature reaches the summit, I hope a new milestone is tackled and she is afforded a graceful exit worthy of her steep climb.
Michele Weldon is an author, journalist, assistant professor emerita in service at The Medill School, Northwestern University, director of Northwestern’s Public Voices Fellowship and senior leader with The OpEd Project.