Because I was attending the International Journalism Festival when Dylan Byers published his click-bait piece “Jill Abramson loses the newsroom” on Politico, I initially intended to respond just with disapproving tweets.
Then Emily Bell slammed the piece for its sexist tone better than I could have. And I initially thought I’d respond just with approving tweets.
After all, I don’t know Jill Abramson. And she doesn’t need me to defend her (great response from her, cited in Huffington Post). I had no idea whether the story was true or not, though I had serious doubts because it relied heavily on unnamed and unaccountable sources. But as I considered it, I thought that a male voice, a former editor who might have supposedly “lost” a newsroom, might have some value and I started pondering a post.
Then I heard Aron Pilhofer tell an Abramson story at the festival and I decided I’d better blog about this.
Most of the editors I’ve worked for have been men. That’s probably true of most people in the news business because the vast majority of editors are men. While women have made strides, men still dominate in newsroom leadership.
I’ve worked for outstanding male editors and terrible male editors. I’ve worked for gentlemen and jerks. I’ve worked for men who were all of those things, depending on their moods and the circumstances. My friend Steve Fagan just wrote about two editors who sounded like real jerks who shaped his career positively.
And none of those male editors was evaluated as a male editor. Good or bad, judged fairly or maligned, they were just editors. And lots of good editors can be really tough, and they can really piss you off.
Like Jill Abramson, I “lost” a newsroom once, according to one man.
My time as editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette was short, marked by some success in covering a catastrophic flood and by swift progress on such digital challenges such as liveblogging, Twitter, databases and multimedia storytelling. It also involved some newsroom job cuts (I opposed them but carried them out) and some structural changes that were not my idea but that I was carrying out.
The long story isn’t important here (not sure I’ll ever blog it), but the CEO, Chuck Peters, decided to remove me from leadership of the newsroom after less than a year. That’s a CEO’s prerogative and it doesn’t matter whether he’s right or not. CEOs get to pick their leaders. I pressed Chuck multiple times for an explanation and got multiple, inconsistent explanations. One of those explanations was that I had “lost” the newsroom. In another explanation, Chuck referred to my occasional travels to industry seminars and conferences (partly because organizations wanted me to discuss the Gazette’s excellent disaster coverage and partly because of a continuing relationship with the American Press Institute which the Gazette’s publisher had agreed to when he hired me).
Whether I truly had lost the newsroom is irrelevant here (a blunt editor who would have told me the truth said I hadn’t). But I did know that you can’t lead as much change as I did — my own changes and those coming from above me — without pissing some people off. If Cedar Rapids had merited a story by a national news organization, a reporter could have found people in the newsroom who would have been plenty critical of me.
Fast-forward to 2013. Dylan Byers wrote that Abramson had lost the Times newsroom. The basis for this? Unnamed sources. Gutless journalists who wouldn’t be accountable for their words. She also was criticized for her travels. She also oversaw staff reductions (through buyouts, not dismissals).
Byers and his Politico editors were clearly aware of the gender aspect of this story about the first woman to edit the Times. A quote from Managing Editor Dean Baquet, one of the two Times sources quoted in the story (both of whom defend Abramson’s leadership), raised the gender issue:
“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,” he said. “That, I think, is a little bit of an unfair caricature.” …
“I don’t buy the notion that she’s not here enough,” Baquet said. “She’s the executive editor of one of the most important news organizations in the country — and the first woman. She’s an important spokeswoman for the industry, which is part of the gig. I’m not quite sure people give her as much credit as she deserves.”
Baquet (who admits to some temper tantrums of his own) was right. And Byers and his editors were wrong to publish that story as written. (Disclosure: I used to work in the same newsroom as the Politico staff when I was at TBD, owned by Allbritton Communications, which owns Politico. I think Byers arrived after I left, but I may well know the editors who handled the story. I always had good relations with Politico when I worked there. I left Allbritton under difficult circumstances, but I bear no ill will to my colleagues at Politico.)
If Abramson’s detractors merited a story in Politico at all, it should have been a better story. It needed to tackle the gender issue in some depth, rather than blowing it off in a couple quotes from her ME. As Emily pointed out well in her piece (changing “Jill” to “Jack” in one passage), the tone was heavily sexist. It barely stopped short of suggesting that she was more “brusque” at certain times of the month. The only thing that leavened the sexist tone was a comparison to Howell Raines, a male predecessor who also was not beloved (hmmm, maybe it’s kinda difficult to lead a newsroom and keep everyone happy?).
Beyond the sexism, the reliance on confidential sources in this story was inexcusable. Some stories can’t be done without confidential sources and absolutely need to be done anyway. This one doesn’t meet that standard. It demanded on-the-record criticism. Maybe all the current Times journalists are too cowardly to criticize their boss on the record. But I doubt it. Certainly some people who have left recently would go on the record. This story needed on-the-record sources. At the very least, we needed the genders of the unnamed sources.
Maybe the criticism of her is valid. And maybe a lot of it comes from women (who can be pretty tough on each other). We don’t know because Politico gives us no basis for evaluating the credibility or perspectives of its sources.
But I’ll give you an on-the-record story about Abramson that Pilhofer, who leads much of the Times digital journalism efforts, told yesterday at the International Journalism Festival: Before the Supreme Court ruled on the constitutionality of the health care reform law, Abramson called key Times staffers into a conference room and told them that the Times would not report anything about the ruling until their reporter had read the full opinion and understood it. Given the embarrassment that CNN and Fox News suffered for rushing false reports online and on the air based on hasty misreadings of the report, that was stellar foresight and leadership. And it belonged in the Politico story.
My newsroom won some awards for our work on my watch, but not a Pulitzer. The Times just celebrated four Pulitzers, its third largest haul in a single year, on Abramson’s watch (as the Politico piece noted). Maybe her tough leadership is just what the Times needs.
Though we didn’t win a Pulitzer, I should note that a national outlet did decide to write about my leadership. After I “lost” my newsroom, Editor & Publisher named me Editor of the Year in 2010. Leading any newsroom is a mix of good and bad, both for the newsroom and the editor. I judge an editor by results, not popularity. Consider this my nomination for Jill Abramson as Editor of the Year.
Update: Dylan Byers posted a response to the criticism of him (not specifically responding to this post; in fact, I think he posted before I posted this, but I just read it).
The response was pretty weak, never addressing his reliance on unnamed and unaccountable sources. I will address just two points. Byers wrote:
In the final day of reporting, I contacted four of my 14 sources — both male and female — and asked, “Is it possible that the criticisms of Jill that we’ve discussed stem from the fact that she is a woman, or a woman in power?” All four of those sources said, “No.”
Really? You asked four critics of Abramson if they were being sexist and they said no? That tells you what? How many sexists admit their sexism? Certainly not Byers.
Byers’ conclusion is over the top:
What I do know is that if 14 current and former staffers at The New York Times told me that Bill Keller, the former executive editor, was stubborn, condescending and difficult to work with, I would have written that piece. And I agree with that reader I quoted above. The idea that women who shatter the glass ceiling should be immune to criticism of their leadership style is itself a dubious double standard.
The New York Times newsroom has how many staff members? Fourteen may feel like a lot of sources when you interview them, but it doesn’t say much about the New York Times newsroom. Hell, 14 was a small minority in my newsroom in Cedar Rapids. But I bet if Byers had written a piece on Bill Keller, it wouldn’t have depicted him as the unreasonable one if he had a conversation where another editor of the opposite gender stormed out of his office, slammed her hand on the wall and didn’t return for the rest of the day. And I bet the hypothetical Keller piece wouldn’t have mentioned his tattoo (if he has one).
I’m not saying that Abramson should not be immune to criticism of her leadership style. I’m saying that criticism of leadership style based on unnamed sources is a story that’s not ready for publication. I’m saying that some of the criticism of Abramson is not criticism a journalist would hear or Byers or Politico would publish about a male editor who did the very same things.
I guess if you don’t like Abramson you pretty much have to criticize her leadership style. Not much to criticize in the results.
Update: Erik Wemple of the Washington Post has written an excellent take on Politico’s inexcusable reliance on unnamed sources in the Byers post.