So far, accounts of why Jill Abramson, the first woman executive editor of The New York Times, was abruptly fired on Wednesday, don't leave us with a firm sense of what happened. What is firm is that her singularity as a woman at the top of a legendary institution means that her firing is freighted with outsized meaning, precisely because there are still so few women and people of color occupying positions that were once the exclusive domain of white men.
There's already one account that, if true, would be shocking—even to an embittered shrew like me—in its ghoulishly retro implications. The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta, in a post published shortly after the news broke, suggested that Abramson had recently discovered that her pay and benefits package was lower than that of her predecessor, Bill Keller, and had pushed to rectify the discrepancy. According to Auletta, Abramson’s insistence on this parity amplified an already established (but unattributed) internal critique that the direct, ambitious Abramson was “brusque” and “pushy,” characteristics not often attributed to male bosses. Those characterizations—coupled with some internal politics surrounding hirings in the Times' expanding digital ventures—cemented Sulzberger’s decision to let her go, according to Auletta.
Putting aside the unconfirmed and truly Paleolithic equal pay narrative for a moment, it is very possible that Abramson was canned because she wasn’t great at her job, or because her bosses didn’t think she was great at her job. There have certainly been reports—admittedly reports that pushed that gender-inflected “pushy” narrative—about her dimly-regarded management style. There is the fact that her paper didn’t collect its usual passel of Pulitzers this year. It’s also true that whatever the complaints about her personal style, Abramson worked to make the famously male paper’s masthead half female and that the paper has enjoyed startling growth in ad revenue in the midst of journalism’s darkest economic days.
Whatever the (possibly caveman) calculations performed by Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher and chairman of the Times, his dismissal of Abramson—and naming of Dean Baquet, the paper’s managing editor, to the top spot—should have been marked by something approximating respect.
It was not.
Abramson’s firing was among the most harsh and humiliating I’ve ever seen play out in the media's recent history. Within minutes of the editorial meeting at which the turnover was announced, Abramson’s name had been scrubbed from the masthead of the paper she’s run for the past two and a half years. A Times spokeswoman told Buzzfeed that Abramson would not be remaining with the paper in any professional capacity and would have no involvement in the transition of power. Sulzberger made no pretense that this was anything other than an unceremonious dump. When staffers reportedly expressed concern that Abramson’s firing would be a blow to women, he helpfully explained that that women in top management positions are just as likely to be fired as men in top management positions.
Actually, they’re more likely to be fired, but otherwise: sure! And while I prefer my explanation of how gender equity is not always about shining successes delivered by Bella Abzug—who once said that the feminist struggle “is not to have a female Einstein get appointed as an assistant professor. It is for a woman schlemiel to get as quickly promoted as a male schlemiel”—I take Sulzberger’s point: that everything being equal, if Abramson was not great at her job, that job should not be protected any more zealously just because she is a woman. Right.
Except of course that not everything is equal and the The New York Times has, over the years, played host to any number of schlemiels, none of whom have been kicked to the curb quite so rudely as Abramson was on Wednesday.
The last editor to be forced out by the Times, Howell Raines, was someone who, like Abramson, did not always enjoy a fuzzy reputation within the newsroom. “Howell ruled by fear,” was how one source described his tenure in 2003. Raines was forced out after it was discovered that one of his reporter protégées, Jayson Blair, had been fabricating stories. But even in the midst of the tumult over Blair, Sulzberger remained affectionate toward Raines, at one point handing him a stuffed moose. When Raines finally left the paper, it was with an address to the staff; his wife was present. In the paper’s report about the departures of Raines and his deputy Gerald Boyd, Sulzberger was quoted as wanting to “applaud Howell and Gerald for putting the interests of this newspaper…above their own.”
Observing the sharp contrast between this kinder, gentler transition and the cold glee with which Abramson was tossed on her ass today made me hope that eventually we will learn that she was stealing from the company cash register. Because that’s pretty much the only crime I can think of that would merit as swift and brutal an exit for a woman who—good or bad at her job, or, more likely, like most bosses in the world, some combination of the two—represented an undeniably historic first in journalism and at The New York Times.
I have no allegiance to Abramson, don’t know her, don’t know for sure what to think about her or her tenure at the Times. Yet the depression I feel about her ugly departure stems from a larger sense of futility regarding what many refer to as “the glass cliff.” It’s a description of an increasingly common circumstance: what happens when people who’ve long been sidelined from power finally get a chance at prominent jobs, but only when the power and possibility of those positions has eroded. See also: Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer, evening news anchors; Mary Barra, CEO of GM; and Barack Obama, president of the United States. Oh, and: Dean Baquet, the new executive editor of The New York Times.
But what’s also sad, and important to note, is what it means to have so few women and people of color in these positions. Because the paucity of representation makes each one of the representatives come to mean so much more—both when they rise and when they fall.
If newspapers and media outlets were run and staffed by as many women as men, Abramson’s dismissal would simply be media gossip: there would be argument about whether she was effective or ineffective; we could debate her own role in the paper’s pre-Iraq coverage, the quality of the paper under her tenure; the value of the multi-part series about a homeless adolescent published by the Times in December. The horrifying questions about whether her reported pursuit of equal pay played a role in her demise likely wouldn’t apply; if there were gender parity in workplaces, pay inequity would be much less of a reality.
As it is, the departure of Jill Abramson is a bigger and far grimmer story about a uniquely powerful woman, whose rise and whose firing will now become another depressingly representative chapter in the story of women's terribly slow march toward social, professional and economic parity.
This post has been updated.