Does anyone really know what happened between Arthur Sulzberger and Jill Abramson at the New York Times? I have read every article I could find over the past few days written about the dismissal of the Times' first female managing editor. What are the lessons we are supposed to learn from this or more importantly, teach our children.
Sure, I have a perspective. I have been a working woman for over 25 years. Based on my own experiences (and, no, I was never Executive Editor of the New York Times), I have no trouble believing that Ms. Abramson was criticized for demonstrating qualities that are lauded as demonstrating leadership when exhibited by a man. Assertive becomes aggressive. Confident becomes bossy. Effective decision-making becomes abrasiveness. I also have no trouble believing that she was paid less than her male colleagues. Special shout out to the woman in the bathroom in my office over 20 years ago who told me that the guy I was outperforming was making 40 percent more. It is not about bitterness or anger. We all know the statistics.
The stories, rumors, maybe even facts are flying around fast and furiously. The combat teams seem to be drawing their battle lines. And as is often the case with complicated relationships, there are quite a number of theories:
Theory 1: Jill Abramson was fired for cause.
According to Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., "I concluded that her management of the newsroom was simply not working out," Sulzberger said. "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."
Potential Lesson: If you make a decision and find yourself bombarded by comments that you are sexist, unfair and responsible for personally undoing years of progress by women in journalism, make an effort to publicly humiliate the person who you blame for the hits on your reputation.
Theory 2: Jill Abramson was fired because her replacement, Dean Baquet, was mad that Jill Abramson was going to hire another journalist and give her the same title as Mr. Baquet.
Well if this is the theory that you are going with, then you would have to decide how you feel about the likelihood that Mr. Baquet "complained to Sulzberger about being blindsided shortly before Abramson's dismissal." According to Ken Auletta's latest report in the New Yorker, Baquet was furious, even issuing an ultimatum. Let me paraphrase -- It is her or me! I think Sulzberger made his choice pretty clear.
Potential Lesson: Complain to your boss' boss and see if you can get him/her to take your side, get mad and give you the job of the person you complained about. Way to man up, Dean and Arthur!
Theory 3: Jill Abramson brought about her own demise due to complaining about unequal pay.
Now this one is tricky. The New Yorker reported that Ms. Abramson made less than the previous managing editor AND that she earned more than $100,000 less than the Washington Bureau Chief she succeeded. OR is just the opposite true. As Sulzberger was quoted, " Jill's pay package was comparable with Bill Keller's," the statement said. "In fact, by her last full year as executive editor, it was more than 10% higher than his."
Potential Lesson: Jill Abramson was paid more or she was paid less. Well, in any case, both things can't both be true. Now compensation isn't always black and white -- what with bonuses, options, other benefits, throw in background, education, track record, whether you were promoted form within or recruited away. But is sure seems something fishy is going on here -- maybe some of that newfangled math the kids are doing these days.
Maybe, just maybe, Abramson was an effective editor and deserves credit for the increase in operating profit and ad revenue in first quarter 2014. Or maybe she was the worst editor of the NY Times who ever lived. Who knows?
The backstabbing, revisionist history and general playground squabbling will continue. The theories will change, the interpretations will be reframed, but here is what is what I really do not understand at all. If you believe even some version of Sulzberger's story, Abramson was guilty of being a bad manager, abrasive, difficult to get along with, and likely to make senior staffing decisions without full disclosure. I am not a lawyer, but none of that sounds illegal. You could use lots of other adjectives, but illegal is not one.
Compare her demise and farewell to that of former editor, Howell Raines. Remember him. He was the guy who had to resign as he was at the helm of the paper when Jayson Blair fabricated stories -- not just one, but dozens. Mr. Raines got a going away party with his wife in attendance. I would think that actually allowing made-up stories to be published in a paper with a reputation for high journalistic standards, would cause your boss to cancel your going away party. I don't know about you, but a public celebration of my leadership during which you seem to have violated the primary tenet of your role as a journalist seems to be a tad better than public humiliation.
Was this a case of sexism? Unequal standards? Verbal gymnastics? Business as usual? Beats me. But you have to admit, we have not certainly not heard "all the news that's fit to print" about this story yet. And please, if you find me too bossy, just fire me!