Jill Abramson and 'the sexist stereotype'
On Tuesday, I reported on the widespread frustrations among New York Times staff with Jill Abramson, the paper's executive editor. That piece has generated quite a bit of controversy, including charges of sexism from journalists like The Guardian's Emily Bell, Slate's Hanna Rosin, and The Daily Beast's Howard Kurtz, among others. Perhaps the most oft-repeated criticism: "You wouldn't have written the same story about a man."
Earlier today I spoke with Jo Becker, the New York Times's Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, after she sent the following reponse:
As someone who greatly admires and likes Jill Abramson, I was deeply upset by Politico's story about the so-called tumult in the newsroom under her stewardship. Sexist, unfair, and inaccurate are a few words that come to mind. For every anonymous snarky quote, there are legions of people who can speak to what a wonderful person Jill is, both as a boss and a human being. Does she demand excellence? Absolutely — from herself as well as everyone around her, in the service of making the New York Times the best that it can be. That should be lauded. Instead, Politico portrayed her in a way I find it impossible to believe it would have done had she been a man.
In our subsequent conversation, Becker said that while she was sure I hadn't "set out to be sexist, the story reflected an unfortunate and unfair sexist stereotype." That's an issue worth exploring.
The piece, as I wrote it, was not intended to be about gender. Indeed, 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." Some of those sources also pointed out that past executive editors have been criticized by staff without allegations of sexism (see Howell Raines, circa 2003).
Based on my reporting, it was my belief that gender was not the cause of these staffers' frustrations. Abramson is the executive editor of The New York Times — she deserves to be judged by her actions and her merits, not by her sex. She was being criticized for her management style irrespective of sex, my sources said, and so I should report it that way. As one female television industry professional wrote of the criticism about my piece, "The idea that a woman should be able to reach the highest levels and then, because of her gender, be completely immune to criticism ... sets the worst kind of precedent for women."
I therefore did not see it as fitting to inject gender into a story that was, as I saw it, not about gender. (Aside from noting that she is the first female executive editor of the Times, the only reference to gender appears in a quote from Times managing editor Dean Baquet, who says "the bitchy woman character ... is a little bit of an unfair caricature.”) But in the days since the story was published, Becker, Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy and Times media reporter Brian Stelter have all said or suggested that the opposite is true: This is about gender.
I trust my sources; they are a diverse ambassadorship for the Times: Old and young, male and female, based in New York and elsewhere. They weren't cherry-picked. After hearing about some of the frustrations with Abramson, I reached out to staffers in many different parts of the organization. Many declined to talk or did not respond. The first 14 who did all assured me, despite my initial doubts, that the frustrations with Abramson were more serious than you're usual water-cooler grumbling: They were deep, widespread and serious. When 14 sources all tell me the same thing, I tend to run with it.
But I trust Becker, too. Indeed, I wish she had been among the Times staffers I had reached out to. In addition to singing Abramson's praises (as she did on the phone), she might have attributed these complaints to the "unfortunate and unfair sexist stereotype." More to the point, I wish Abramson had agreed to speak with me, and I could have put the question to her that I put to my sources: Is this about gender? Had she said "yes," I would have explored that with her.
Based on my reporting and the subsequent criticism, it seems to me that one thing is demonstrably true: There are considerable frustrations with Abramson in The New York Times's newsroom. You can see those as legitimate, non-gender-related complaints about management style, or you can see those as sexist, but they exist and they pose a problem for the Times newsroom going forward — either because Abramson really is a difficult leader, or because there are a lot of men and women at the Times who are uncomfortable with having her in charge.
But the question of sexism remains remarkably murky. Were my sources sexist and just didn't admit it? Or were they inadvertently sexist? Did some of those 14 staffers, including the women, complain to me about Abramson without knowing that the true cause of their frustration wasn't Abramson, but their own inability to deal with a woman being in charge? I doubt it, but I don't know. I can't know.
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.