Part 1—In which the scene is set: Two women, and their respective plights, have been described in the press in recent weeks.
One of the women is quite well off; she holds extremely high professional status. When she isn’t at her Connecticut country home, she lives in Tribeca.
Her plight: She had an extremely good job, but her boss decided to replace her. She will soon have another extremely good job with some other employer.
The other woman is much younger. She’s senior class president at her public high school, where she was also homecoming queen and a three-time individual state champion in track. She lives with her mother, an auto worker, in the least affluent part of Tuscaloosa, a city in Alabama.
Her plight: Due to low scores on the ACT, she may not be able to get into a four-year college next year.
One woman was replaced in a job which is said to have paid her $525,000 per year as part of her compensation package. The other woman, who attends a “low-performing” high school, may not be able to attend college, which she very much wants to do.
If you understand the press corps, you will know which woman’s plight has been widely discussed. You may also understand the way her plight has been discussed.
For starters, we’d say that her plight has been discussed in the standard incompetent manner. Consider the work of Ken Auletta, an extremely high status journalist who quickly emerged as the Boswell, perhaps even the Ovid, of the older woman’s plight.
Last Friday afternoon, we discussed one fuzzy bit of writing by this high-ranking journalist. Defining the story at The New Yorker, he put the word “pushy” inside quotes without explaining if anyone had actually attributed the magic word to the older woman.
As an act of journalism, this was extremely bad work. As an act of novel construction, this piece of work was sublime.
Serving an unnamed master, Auletta put the word “pushy” in play. Beyond that, consider this deathless passage, which basically established the terms in which the older woman’s plight has been discussed:
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.** (Murphy would say only that Abramson’s compensation was “broadly comparable” to that of Taubman and Geddes.)That is stunningly awful journalism, to the extent that it can be described as “journalism” at all. And yet, this passage, by a high-status national journalist, has set the terms for the discussion of the older woman’s plight.
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.”)
Tomorrow, we’ll “parse” that passage, showing what makes it so terrible as an act of journalism. And all week long, we’ll look at the way the American press corps discussed these two women’s plights.
The plight of the older woman will be discussed for weeks. The plight of the younger woman has been completely ignored by the rest of the press, but it was discussed in detail in a 10,000-word ProPublica piece which ran in The Atlantic.
All week long, we’ll look at the way these plights have been discussed. We’ll focus on the press corps’ technical incompetence, and on its love for high-interest novels, preferably novels which turn on issues of race, gender or sex.
Tomorrow: What makes that passage so awful?
We must quickly mention this: What’s wrong with that passage by Auletta, the highly presentable major domo from The New Yorker?
Without delay, we must mention one point from the first paragraph we posted. We’ll change our point of emphasis here:
AULETTA: 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.** (Murphy would say only that Abramson’s compensation was “broadly comparable” to that of Taubman and Geddes.)Oof! That double asterisk leads us to this acknowledgment at the end of Auletta’s piece:
**In an earlier version, Phil Taubman was referred to as Jill Abramson’s predecessor.
Oof! According to Auletta, Abramson’s successor as Washington bureau chief has been paid a higher salary than she was.
For reasons we’ll discuss tomorrow, it isn’t clear that Auletta knows if that is true. But in his original post, Auletta made a groaning factual error. He reported that Abramson’s predecessor in the post was paid that higher salary.
Everybody makes mistakes; that mistake was a beaut. And uh-oh! Flipping around the web yesterday, we saw Auletta’s original, erroneous copy still on display at several prominent sites.
(Example: As of this morning's posting, the erroneous copy is still on display at Ezra Klein’s brainy new site.)
Everybody makes mistakes. In this instance, Auletta committed a genuine groaner.
That said, the way these plights have been discussed takes us beyond the realm of “mistake.” It takes us the realm of “novel,” the place where our national discourse will routinely be found.