Jill Abramson shows how to handle a setback



Monday morning, Jill Abramson kept a promise she’d made months ago to deliver the commencement address at Wake Forest University. She had every reason to cancel. She didn’t.

She said little about her firing as editor of the New York Times less than a week before, but just by showing up, she said a lot about who she is. She keeps her word, plows ahead (she recovered to take over the Times after a truck ran her over, causing serious injuries), is a born leader with eight Pulitzers to show for three-year tenure, and has a sense of humor.

She recalled how her father, who didn’t graduate college, was proud of her success, but prouder still of the way she handled setbacks.

She devoted her address “to anyone who has been dumped — you bet — not gotten the job you wanted, or received those horrible rejection letters from grad school. You know the sting of losing or not getting something you badly want. When that happens, show what you are made of.”

Her only reluctance was the fear of detracting from the graduates’ big day.

“The only real news here today is your graduation from this great university,” she said. “I’m impressed that your achievements have attracted so much media attention — as well they should.”

I can identify with Abramson. I was the first woman columnist at Time magazine, a wonderful job that came to a bad end.

But my situation wasn’t comparable in one important way: Abramson just lived through five days of global coverage of her dismissal, which was justified by her former employer on the grounds that she was brusque, too high-profile, mercurial, polarizing, a poor communicator and, yes, pushy. Women suspect that’s how weak men think of strong women. It hurts.

In the narrative that’s unfolded over the last few days, Abramson’s story pits an editor who loved the Times (and has a tattoo to prove it) against a publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who inherited the job at a time when the newspaper industry was in peril.

The Times’ own media critic, David Carr, wrote that even though the Times displayed a “lack of decorum” that was “stunning” in handling her firing, the woman part of the story was just a sideshow. According to Carr, a big reason for the decision to dismiss Abramson was her decision to try to hire a managing editor for digital projects without informing Dean Baquet, her then-No. 2 and now her replacement as executive editor.

Women don’t see it that way. About 30 news organizations covered Abramson’s speech at Wake Forest because she was the newspaper’s first female editor and was let go for conduct that might not fell a man. Veteran journalists Kara Swisher and former Washington Post reporter and Politico editor Susan Glasser ( Editing While Female) have written eloquently to that point.

My story isn’t as interesting. I had a great run at Time. My writing didn’t change, but the tastes of the editorial hierarchy did. The most egregious incident involved the personal reminiscence I was asked to write about Washington Post Publisher Katharine Graham when she died. My column bounced back to me with a note explaining that I had failed to deal with the issue of Washington Post Co.’s A and B shares. It was the first time I’d been asked to build an elegy around corporate structure.

But it wasn’t the first clash of editorial taste. Over time, I felt like I was becoming the farmer who was being paid not to grow soybeans. I resisted saying I was going to spend more time with my family. My family already saw enough of me. But, unlike Abramson, I didn’t have the guts to leave and use my story to help other women. I took a leave of absence to write a book. The summer served as something of a cooling-off period. But I’d tasted life without the aggravation and decided to move on.

When Howell Raines was dismissed from the editor’s job at the Times, he addressed the newsroom before walking out the door. Not so, Abramson. There were no goodbyes. Her full-on welcome at Wake Forest might have to serve as her farewell for now. “What’s next for me?” she asked near the end of her address. “I don’t know, so I’m exactly in the same boat as many of you.”

Not exactly, but the graduates got her point and cheered. And not just the graduates. Here’s to you, Jill.

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.

© 2014, Bloomberg


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