Arthur Sulzberger Is a Newspaperman. He Should Have Known Better.

My own short journalism career was largely unimpeded by my gender (the one big gender fight in my college newsroom ended in conversations and e-mails that  could have been a PBS special on forgiveness and understanding), but I still saw it and heard it. The fellow journalism interns who thought nothing about talking about visiting strip clubs while I was standing right next to them, the female reporter who struggled to get cops to take her seriously when she covered a crime scene, the staff photographer at my school paper who was asked not to take the photos on a story I was writing because the editor didn’t think two women should go to a low-security prison, the writer (me!) who didn’t object to that reasoning despite no indication from our sources that the precaution was necessary.

There were messages I was young enough to ignore that said that to rise to the top was to choose journalism over family. There were congressmen who didn’t take me seriously. There was a Senate press corps that was still predominately male to say nothing of the gender imbalance  in financial-related press conferences.

I knew that I was already benefiting from fights of The Girls in the Balcony  by virtue of entering journalism when I did, and, with her appointment as executive editor of The New York Times, Jill Abramson (who also benefitted from those fights) seemed to bust open the glass ceiling long before I was close to hitting it. It seemed that the industry I loved would be a little more likely to love me back. (It turned out, it didn’t, or I didn’t love it as much as I thought I did, but that was not related to my gender).

Abramson, during the announcement of her appointment to executive editor.

The night Jill Abramson was announced as the next executive editor of The New York Times  I couldn’t sleep. Three years later, she was fired. We don’t know the whole story as to why she was fired, but there is reason to be skeptical of claims that is was simply management style, mainly that the Times has had lots and lots of bad managers at the helm. From The New Yorker: 

Another, a prominent reporter, proposed a multiple-choice question: “Tough and abrasive?” (a) Abe Rosenthal (1977-86), (b) Howell Raines (2001-03), (c) Max Frankel (1986-94), (d) Jill Abramson (2011-14), (e) all of the above. “Business is basically good, and the journalism is good, but the culture is bad,” the reporter continued. “But that describes a hundred and fifty years of the paper’s history. It’s always been sociopaths and lunatics running the place. Why step to Jill? People are genuinely upset about that.”

Even if it turns out that Abramson’s lower salary was totally justified, even if it turns out she was a terrible manager, the conversations around her tenure and her management style have been gendered from the start. There was no way they weren’t going to be. And, the conversation around her firing has been gendered. While Sulzberger said that he spoke to female “rising stars” at the Times who didn’t want “special treatment” and didn’t see the firing of Abramson as anything but a decision about an individual, David Carr “heard from several talented young women who are a big part of The New York Times’s future. “’ I really don’t see a path for me here,’  said one. ‘Are we O.K.?’

“Well, that depends on how the next few weeks go and whether The Times can convince female employees that it is a fair place to work, with ample opportunity to advance,” Carr wrote.

Carr concluded that Sulzberger’s assessment of Abramson’s management failings was correct, but the fact is that the way that the firing was handled at the Times scared some of the women who worked there, made them doubt that there were cracks in the glass ceiling. The coverage of the firing, both the carefully reported and the sensational, didn’t help. I read that coverage and couldn’t remember any of that thrill I had three years ago.

Sulzberger owns a newspaper–THE newspaper. He and his staff should understand messaging and the ways that messages can be unintentionally transmitted or mistranslated. Regardless of what really happened in the lead-up to Abramson’s firing, it’s inexcusable that Sulzberger  didn’t understand that female journalists everywhere were going to see Abramson’s sudden and unceremonious dismissal as a message about the metaphorical glass ceilings in the Times’ window-filled building and therefore in the industry as a whole. Sulzberger–perhaps inadvertantly–sent a message about the way a female reporter and editor is expected to conduct herself and the dangers she’ll face is she dares to be, like many of her predecessors,  pushy and forceful.  And it doesn’t look like progress.

 

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