UPDATED, 5:57 PM: In round three of his coverage of l’affair Abramson, New Yorker media reporter Ken Auletta pulled back from his claim that the first female executive editor of the New York Times was ousted by publisher and chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. after raising issues about getting lower compensation than her predecessor. In a shocking post on Sunday evening at newyorker.com, Auletta wrote that, according to “extremely well-informed sources at the paper” — presumably Sulzberger himself or his proxy — “Abramson was, essentially, fired for cause, for lying to Sulzberger…” The linchpin issue, Auletta reports, was Abramson’s courtship of Janine Gibson, editor of the American edition of the Guardian newspaper, to run the Times’s digital operations.
It’s been widely reported that Abramson had the support of both Sulzberger and chief financial officer Mark Thompson, and that the deal was all but done to bring Gibson — a powerhouse journalist who had been chiefly responsible for the Edward Snowden revelations of the inner workings of the National Security agency — to the Times masthead at a level parallel to her managing editor, Dean Baquet. However, Auletta writes, that was with the “assurance she had squared Gibson’s rank and arrival with Baquet when, in fact, she had not. The sources say she misled Sulzberger when she said, in person and by e-mail, that she had consulted with Baquet about the offer to Gibson and had worked it all out in detail with him.” Gibson told Auletta that “Jill was explicit in our initial conversation when she told me, ‘The first thing I have to do is talk to Dean.’ I’m mortified that these discussions are in public and feel very strongly that Jill should not have been hung out to dry when she behaved honorably and was trying to do what she thought was best for the New York Times.”
So after two columns in which Auletta left little doubt that his sympathy lay primarily with Abramson and the unequal pay issue, the force of his reporting in one of the country’s most distinguished news outlets has taken a turn. He still regards Sulzberger as a flawed steward of the Times but concludes the latest piece with a dig at both sides: “While Sulzberger disparaged Abramson for the way she ran the paper, the Times’s own mishandling of this crisis could be taught at the Harvard Business School as a case study in poor management and worse communications. It is an affair in which neither side behaved well or with any finesse and the institution, which is so central to American journalism, suffered.”
The summary dismissal of NY Times executive editor Jill Abramson last week – she was replaced by managing editor Dean Baquet – has led to a very public thrust-and-parry between Times publisher and chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and the New Yorker magazine’s unshakably confident media reporter Ken Auletta. The key issue is whether Abramson’s dismissal was related to complaints by the Times’s first woman top editor over compensation.
Abramson, according to reports, had gone so far as to consult a labor lawyer after learning that male predecessors in various editing positions had earned more than she. The Times has vigorously denied that Abramson was a victim of gender discrimination, a sore-point issue for the liberal-leaning paper, which was forced, after losing a class-action lawsuit in the 1970s, to hire more women and, ultimately, get them into higher positions of power at the paper of record.
The spat has put Sulzberger in the unusual position of accounting for his decision in memos to the staff – instantly leaked to media reporters – that have led to more questions than answers. In a memo yesterday, Sulzberger wrote that, “Perhaps the saddest outcome of my decision to replace Jill Abramson as executive editor of The New York Times is that it has been cast by many as an example of the unequal treatment of women in the workplace. Rather than accepting that this was a situation involving a specific individual who, as we all do, has strengths and weaknesses, a shallow and factually incorrect storyline has emerged. Fueling this have been persistent but incorrect reports that Jill’s compensation package was not comparable with her predecessor’s.”
That was a specific reference to Auletta’s columns, published on the New Yorker’s website, challenging the Times’s insistence that Abramson was fired over “management” issues. Auletta cited anonymously sourced figures about how much Bill Keller had earned in his final year as executive editor, and how much Abramson was earning – likely an apples-and-oranges comparison, given the difference in length of time served at the paper and the fact, Sulzberger said yesterday, that, “Jill’s pay package was comparable with Bill Keller’s; in fact, by her last full year as executive editor, it was more than 10% higher than his. Equal pay for women is an important issue in our country – one that The New York Times often covers. But it doesn’t help to advance the goal of pay equality to cite the case of a female executive whose compensation was not in fact unequal.”
Sulzberger then took the extraordinary step – one that may violate a mutual non-disparagement clause that is likely to be part of Abramson’s severance package — of going into specifics of the ouster:
“I decided that Jill could no longer remain as executive editor for reasons having nothing to do with pay or gender … During her tenure, I heard repeatedly from her newsroom colleagues, women and men, about a series of issues, including arbitrary decision-making, a failure to consult and bring colleagues with her, inadequate communication and the public mistreatment of colleagues. I discussed these issues with Jill herself several times and warned her that, unless they were addressed, she risked losing the trust of both masthead and newsroom. She acknowledged that there were issues and agreed to try to overcome them. We all wanted her to succeed. It became clear, however, that the gap was too big to bridge and ultimately I concluded that she had lost the support of her masthead colleagues and could not win it back.”
On Friday, the New York Post, always quick to poke thumbs in the Times’s eye, front-paged a photo Instagramed by Abramson’s daughter showing the editor in tank-top and boxing gloves, going at it with a punching bag, and the headline: “An-grey Lady,” a punning reference to the paper’s nickname as the Gray Lady (though the spelling betrayed the fact that the Post isn’t really an American paper). There was little doubt the photo had been distributed with its subject’s approval.