Part 2—How to compose a novel: Last night, Chris Hayes—the new, improved Hayes—was sounding off about the Jill Abramson matter.
If you ever watched the old Chris Hayes, you could see the improved body language. Sadly, you could also see the dumbness of the new language.
You could see the new, exciting way of framing a topic. To watch the whole segment, click here:
HAYES (5/19/14): The most brutal PR train wreck in America got even more train wreckier this weekend. What has become a “can’t look away,” acrimonious battle between recently deposed New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson and the person who deposed her, the Times’ publisher and family heir, Arthur “Pinch” Sulzberger. It keeps getting worse.Chris was giving us rubes our thrills, presumably as the suits wanted.
Other news outlets are furiously reporting on the Times. The Times is reporting on itself and Times employees are expressing support and dissent.
Joining me now, Emily Bazelon, senior editor at Slate, contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, who knows Jill Abramson.
Emily, are you astounded at how ugly this entire thing has gotten? I just cannot believe, every day that passes, more leaks, more articles, more facts coming out. Sulzberger himself coming out to basically be like, “She was terrible.” It’s head-spinning. It’s gotten so bad and so public so fast.
For better or worse, the train wreck seemed to get quite a bit less train wreckier during Hayes’ brief discussion with Bazelon.
Hayes was no longer reading from prompter. Soon, he seemed to agree with Bazelon—the astoundingly ugly train wreck has perhaps been overplayed:
HAYES: We have then seen, in the New York Times, David Carr, their media reporter, writing a column saying, “So I like Jill. My reporting, including interviews with senior people in newsroom, some of them women, backs up the conclusion of Sulzberger this was not about pay equity.” How do you make sense of this battle over whether pay equity was the issue?What happened to the can’t-look-away, head-spinning train wreck that Hayes “just cannot believe?” That train wreck seemed to exist on prompter, not in Hayes’ actual head.
BAZELON: I think David is right. I think the pay equity story is a sideshow and there was a lot of unrest and division at the New York Times, and discontent with having an editor who was really aggressive, brusque, whatever adjective you want to use.
It is also true that sometimes adjectives like that get used about women in a way that are different from men, but that doesn’t necessarily mean this was a sexist firing.
HAYES: So I think that is a really key point that everything seems over-determined here. It seems to me the possibility this is someone who had a whole lot of sexist expectations put on her and there were sort of sexist ways in which she was interpreted, and also had a manner that rubbed people the wrong way, and those two could actually both be true.
BAZELON: Yes, I think that’s right and to me it’s been important that we have not seen an uprising on the part of women of the New York Times.
BAZELON: There are a lot of women like me who are grateful to Jill. She was a tremendous promoter of women. But that doesn’t mean that people can’t see some of her weaknesses.
HAYES: Yes, Lydia Polgreen, who’s a deputy international editor, saying there has been no revolt. There have been many searching conversations, but no women’s revolt over Jill Abramson’s firing at the New York Times.
At any rate, a funny thing happened during this interview. Bazelon and Hayes moved away from the idea that “pay equity” lay at the heart of this episode, in which “everything seems over-determined,” whatever that lingo means.
For ourselves, we have no idea why Arthur Sulzberger, who hired Abramson three years ago, decided to replace her. We don’t know how much she was being paid, or how her pay compared to that of her predecessor, Bill Keller.
We don’t know what Abramson thought about her level of pay. We don’t know what Sulzberger thought about her negotiations concerning pay.
Like almost everyone who has commented on this matter, we don’t know those things. We do know how the question of “pay equity” came center stage in the discussion of Abramson's plight.
Last night, Hayes and Bazelon moved away from “pay equity” as the reason for this dismissal. Quite plainly, though, this hypothesis came center stage through the error-strewn work of Ken Auletta, a high-status national journalist whose skin always strikes us as an ad for mud-packing Manhattan spas.
Soon after Abramson lost her job, Auletta went to work at The New Yorker’s site explaining the reasons for her dismissal. As is becoming increasingly clear, Auletta’s work on this topic has been extremely bad.
That said, his error-strewn work helps us see something important. It helps us see the way the news gets novelized in high-profile cases like this.
In his original May 14 post, Auletta told a story of a woman who got fired for being perceived as “pushy.”
In a strikingly slippery way, he put the magic word “pushy” in quotes, although he never said who was supposed to have uttered the word in this case. See our previous post.
The magic word “pushy” jumped directly to Salon’s headlines. It was featured in a much-publicized post by Abramson’s daughter.
Judged by journalistic norms, Auletta’s promotion of the word “pushy” was remarkably slippery. He also made a factual error in that May 14 post, as we will note below.
Then, in a May 15 post, Auletta offered this account of the way Abramson was getting underpaid. At this point, “pay equity” went through the roof—and a second factual error occurred:
AULETTA (5/15/14): Let’s look at some numbers I’ve been given: As executive editor, Abramson’s starting salary in 2011 was $475,000, compared to Keller’s salary that year, $559,000. Her salary was raised to $503,000, and—only after she protested—was raised again to $525,000. She learned that her salary as managing editor, $398,000, was less than that of the male managing editor for news operations, John Geddes. She also learned that her salary as Washington bureau chief, from 2000 to 2003, was a hundred thousand dollars less than that of her predecessor in that position, Phil Taubman.That is terrible journalism, in a wide array of ways (see below). But as we noted yesterday, that highlighted passage contained an outright mistake:
Whatever his pay may or may not have been, Taubman was Abramson’s successor as Washington bureau chief, not her predecessor. This error tipped the scales in the direction of the emerging novel, in which Abramson had been massively underpaid as compared to relevant men.
As it turns out, Auletta had made an outright mistake about Geddes too. As the Washington Post’s Eric Wemple noted yesterday, this is what Auletta had written in his May 14 post:
AULETTA (5/14/14): As with any such upheaval, there’s a history behind it. Several weeks ago, I’m told, Abramson discovered that her pay and her pension benefits as both executive editor and, before that, as managing editor were considerably less than the pay and pension benefits of Bill Keller, the male editor whom she replaced in both jobs. “She confronted the top brass,” one close associate said, and this may have fed into the management’s narrative that she was “pushy,” a characterization that, for many, has an inescapably gendered aspect. Sulzberger is known to believe that the Times, as a financially beleaguered newspaper, needed to retreat on some of its generous pay and pension benefits; Abramson had also been at the Times for far fewer years than Keller, having spent much of her career at the Wall Street Journal, accounting for some of the pension disparity. Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Times, said that Jill Abramson’s total compensation as executive editor “was directly comparable to Bill Keller’s”—though it was not actually the same. I was also told by another friend of Abramson’s that the pay gap with Keller was only closed after she complained. But, to women at an institution that was once sued by its female employees for discriminatory practices, the question brings up ugly memories. Whether Abramson was right or wrong, both sides were left unhappy. A third associate told me, “She found out that a former deputy managing editor”—a man—“made more money than she did” while she was managing editor. “She had a lawyer make polite inquiries about the pay and pension disparities, which set them off.”As Auletta has noted in his latest correction, that highlighted passage on May 14 referred to Geddes. Like the May 15 passage concerning Taubman, it was factually wrong. As noted above, Geddes was actually managing editor for news operations at the time in question, not a deputy managing editor.
That highlighted passage described a great injustice: Abramson, while a managing editor, was being paid less than a deputy managing editor!
Alas! In that May 14 post, Auletta was wrong about that. On May 15, he was wrong about Taubman too.
Question: Where does Auletta get all his misinformation? Why did he play such a slippery game concerning the magic word “pushy?” We can’t answer those questions, but anyone can see what was happening in his posts. A pleasing novel was being created, in which Abramson was name-called in a distinctive way and grossly underpaid as compared to males.
Whatever the actual truth may be, this was terrible journalism, of a familiar type. As a final note, let’s consider the hapless passage from Auletta’s May 15 post:
AULETTA (5/15/14): Let’s look at some numbers I’ve been given: As executive editor, Abramson’s starting salary in 2011 was $475,000, compared to Keller’s salary that year, $559,000. Her salary was raised to $503,000, and—only after she protested—was raised again to $525,000. She learned that her salary as managing editor, $398,000, was less than that of the male managing editor for news operations, John Geddes. She also learned that her salary as Washington bureau chief, from 2000 to 2003, was a hundred thousand dollars less than that of her successor in that position, Phil Taubman.Would you hire a college senior who performed journalism that way? Consider these elements:
Murphy cautioned that one shouldn’t look at salary but, rather, at total compensation, which includes, she said, any bonuses, stock grants, and other long-term incentives. This distinction appears to be the basis of Sulzberger’s comment that Abramson was not earning “significantly less.” But it is hard to know how to parse this without more numbers from the Times. For instance, did Abramson’s compensation pass Keller’s because the Times’ stock price rose? Because her bonuses came in up years and his in down years? Because she received a lump-sum long-term payment and he didn’t?
And, if she was wrong, why would Mark Thompson agree, after her protest, to sweeten her compensation from $503,000 to $525,000? (Murphy said, on behalf of Thompson, that Abramson “also raised other issues about her compensation and the adequacy of her pension arrangements, which had nothing to do with the issue of comparability. It was to address these other issues that we suggested an increase in her compensation.”)
“Let’s look at some numbers I’ve been given.”
Auletta didn’t feel the need to explain who had given him the numbers or how he knew they were accurate. In this way, the most basic factual question was simply ignored.
For ourselves, we have no idea if those numbers are accurate. Assuming they are for the sake of this exercise, let’s continue assessing Auletta’s work:
“As executive editor, Abramson’s starting salary in 2011 was $475,000, compared to Keller’s salary that year, $559,000.”
In this passage, Auletta compares Abramson’s first-year salary in the executive editor post to Keller’s eighth-year salary in the post. Would such questions of seniority typically affect such salaries?
Like you, we have no idea. Auletta simply let this obvious question pass.
“Her salary was raised to $503,000, and—only after she protested—was raised again to $525,000.”
When was her salary raised to $503,000? After that, what did she protest about, and why was her salary raised that second time? The most obvious facts are omitted here. Whatever the truth of these matters might be, this is less a work of journalism than it is the gauzy world of fairy tale.
At this point, Auletta committed his groaner about Taubman, even as he corrected the previous day’s groaner about Geddes. He then moved ahead to this statement:
“But it is hard to know how to parse this without more numbers from the Times.”
We can’t “parse” anything about this at all until we get accurate numbers. Does Auletta have any accurate numbers? Like you, we have no way of knowing. Why should we assume his numbers are correct when he committed those factual groaners about both Geddes and Taubman?
Finally, pray for The New Yorker’s baby:
“And, if she was wrong, why would Mark Thompson agree, after her protest, to sweeten her compensation from $503,000 to $525,000?”
Truly, that’s just sad. Assuming that this “sweetening” did occur, there could be a thousand different explanations for it. Auletta gives parenthetical treatment to the Times’ denial of the pay equity hypothesis. As readers, we still don’t even know when these alleged salary bumps occurred.
In truth, Auletta’s work hasn’t been journalism. Through his errors and his slippery insinuations, he created a familiar, high interest novel, built on a familiar, high-interest theme.
His suggestions and claims may be perfectly accurate. But how is a reader to know?
By last night, Bazelon and Hayes were drifting away from the “pay equity” explanation. But at the outset of this high-profile story, this theme served Team Abramson’s interests, making an instant martyr of its embattled principal.
A familiar story had been crafted about her plight, built around a highly familiar theme. In truth, the plight of our second, younger woman was treated in a similar way.
At ProPublica, D’Leisha Dent was fashioned as a martyr to a familiar old nemesis, “segregation.” This made a pleasing morality tale.
In many ways, ProPublica’s reporting and advocacy were accurate and justified. But in the process, the astonishing academic profile of Central High’s senior class was largely disappeared.
If D’Leisha Dent can’t get into college, what in the world is going on with the lower ninety percent of her senior class? To tell you the truth, ProPublica didn’t seem to care a whole lot about that. Neither did The Atlantic.
Can we talk? D’Leisha Dent will not be discussed on the Chris Hayes program. Her plight will not be examined on your TV machine.
One of our two women this week is extremely high-status. Last night, Hayes and Bazelon pondered her plight in some detail.
D’Leisha Dent is not high status. In our view, her plight was novelized a bit too, at which point it disappeared!
Tomorrow: Abramson and Howell Raines