Part 4—The danger of standard stories: We're still without our connectivity! But thanks to our corporate partners at FedEx, we bring you this brief report.
Off and on, we've examined the plights of two women this week.
The plight of one woman, Jill Abramsonm, has been discussed at length. The plight of a younger woman, D'Leisha Dent, has been almost completely ignored.
It's also true that each woman's plight has been interpreted in terms of a familiar old story. According to these familiar stories, Abramson lost her job as executive editor of the New York Times because of sexism in the workplace. When The Atlantic devoted 10,000 words to Dent's plight, it focused on "resegregation" in the South.
For the most part, The Atlantic ignored a larger story, a story concerning Dent's academic profile and that of the rest of her senior class at Tuscaloosa's Central High. Starting next week, we'll devote several weeks to that topic, in a set of reports we will call "The Gaps."
For today, consider a claim about Abramson's plight. No man in her position would have lost his job for being considered too "brusque," some have said.
Did Abramson lose her job because of gender bias? We can't answer that question. We can report the way Howell Raines was described in the press when he lost the same job at the Times in 2003.
Raines had been on the job less than two years when he was dispatched. In July 2003, Bill Keller was named as his successor. USA Today's Peter Johnson started his rpeort like this:
JOHNSON (7/15/03): Bill Keller, a New York Times columnist and former managing editor, was named executive editor Monday, replacing Howell Raines, who was ousted after the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal.According to Johnson, Raines had bene disfavored by many due to "brusque management style."
Keller, 54, said he will dismantle Raines' centralized management structure, in which most decisions came from a handful of top editors.
Keller, 54, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent who is popular with many staffers—a contrast to Raines, whose brusque management style and reporter/editor "star system" offended many employees.
This was a very standard view. Six weeks earlier, when Raines was dispatched, this was what Howard Kurtz wrote. Headline included:
KURTZ (6/9/03): Howell Raines's Tenure: It Left a Nasty MarkRaines was dispatched in the wake of the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal. He was widely described in terms which are quite similar to the terms applied to Abramson in the past week.
Now, of course, it's easy for some New York Times staffers to unload on Howell Raines.
Jerelle Kraus, a Times art director, told reporters that Raines reminds her of "Caligula" and is "the nastiest editor I've ever worked with." One Times veteran says there is still "venom" in the air toward the departed executive editor.
But since when are newsrooms supposed to be democracies? Or editors supposed to be warm, hand-holding types? Running a huge newspaper is a rough business that sometimes requires knocking heads. Can Raines really have resigned under pressure because much of the staff found him an unpleasant son of a gun?
The answer is yes—a more popular editor would have ridden out the storm—but it's more complicated than that...
Raines, a man, was too brusque too. Reporters stressed the point that Keller, his replacement, had a more pleasant personal style.
Reading descriptions of Abramson and Raines, we've been struck by the similar way the tyros have been described. Consider Ken Auletta's report when Abramson took over at the Times in 2011.
As Auletta described the new boss, he described her many talents. He also described her downsides—and they brought Raines to mind. In this passage, Auletta described Abramson's first day on the job:
AULETTA (10/24/11): Abramson had previously been the paper’s managing editor, and many in the newsroom considered her to be intimidating and brusque; she was too remote and, they thought, slightly similar to an earlier executive editor, the talented but volcanic Howell Raines, who had also begun the job right after Labor Day, in 2001. After less than two years, Raines was forced out, and his memory is still cursed.Oof! It seems that Raines was so brusque, his memory was still being cursed! Later in Auletta's profile, the comparison pops up again:
AULETTA: While colleagues respect Abramson’s news judgment, they are wary of her sometimes brusque manner. In the summer of 2010, nearly two dozen editors met to plan coverage for the midterm elections. Although Abramson was still working on the online paper, she decided to attend. The gathering was chaired by the national editor, Richard Berke, and the political editor, Richard Stevenson. They began to talk about stories they wanted covered. Abramson interrupted, without allowing them to finish the presentation, and began belittling many of their ideas.In Auletta's long report, you read about the back-biting and undermining (by Abramson) which helped ease Raines out of his post. It sounds remarkably like the back-biting and undermining aimed at Abramson which has been attributed to Baquet in the last week.
“This was a small earthquake of a meeting,” one reporter, who was informed about it shortly afterward, says. “She whacked editors,” a senior editor who heard about the meeting says. Glenn Kramon, an assistant managing editor, says of Abramson, “The challenge is to say what she wants, not what she doesn’t like.” A senior editor says, “She and Howell are remarkably similar. They are big personalities. They suck the air out of the room. They tell stories about themselves...Unlike Howell, she is not mean. Jill is a nice, caring person...She doesn’t enjoy torturing people. So much of her negativity is unintended.”
Even her supporters were mildly critical of her behavior at the political meeting. Dean Baquet, the acting managing editor at the time, says, “I wouldn’t have handled it that way.” Her criticism “was too sharp.” Abramson now admits, “I think I was probably too tough,” and “hijacked the meeting in a way that was not helpful.”
One other example is worth noting. Last year, Politico's Dylan Byers reported that many staffers at the Times were upset with Abramson's management style. Once again, the comparison to Raines appeared:
BYERS (4/23/13): Months into the job, reporters and editors once again took notice of what they described as Abramson’s brusque approach, which had become only more pronounced now that Abramson was running the show. Every New York Times executive editor has demonstrated the ability to cut someone off at the knees, sources acknowledge, but Abramson did it with a frequency that was demoralizing to almost everyone involved.Once again, the comparison to Raines appeared, with people saying that Abramson's approach, while brusque, wasn't quite that bad. In these discussions, the woman was too brusque, but the man had been even worse.
“It’s beginning to reach Howell Raines-like proportions,” one staffer said, referring to the former executive editor who, from 2001 to 2003, is reported to have ruled the paper through humiliation and fear before being forced to resign after the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal.
Others cautioned against such a drastic comparison. Indeed, some think Abramson’s dismissive tone may even be inadvertent. “I don’t know if she realizes how condescending she can be,” one staff member said.
Why did Abramson lose her job? We have no idea. We also have no opinion about her management style.
As a general matter, are women judged differently in the workplace? Presumably, the answer may often be yes. But we can't say if this occurred in the curent case.
Familiar old stories will often be used to explain new events. Abramson's plight was explained in terms of sexism in the workplace. Dent's plight was filtered through the lens of "segregation."
In the case of Dent, we think that familiar old lens obliterated a much larger story. Connectivity willing, we'll start exploring that story next week.
We think that story is very important. We very much hope you'll attend.