NY Times Editor Abramson Called Brusque, 'Very Unpopular,' Defenders Cry Sexism

April 25th, 2013 11:04 AM

Politico media reporter Dylan Byers stirred up media indignation with an unflattering article Tuesday on Jill Abramson, the New York Times executive editor, "Turbulence at the Times", based largely on anonymous Times sources who snipe that Abramson is detached, brusque, and a "very, very unpopular" presence in the newsroom.

One Monday morning in April, Jill Abramson called Dean Baquet into her office to complain. The executive editor of The New York Times was upset about the paper’s recent news coverage -- she felt it wasn’t “buzzy” enough, a source there said -- and placed blame on Baquet, her managing editor. A debate ensued, which gave way to an argument.

Minutes later, Baquet burst out of Abramson’s office, slammed his hand against a wall and stormed out of the newsroom. He would be gone for the rest of the day, absent from the editors’ daily 4 p.m. meeting, at which he is a fixture.

“I feel bad about that,” Baquet told POLITICO in a recent interview. “The newsroom doesn’t need to see one of its leaders have a tantrum.”

The episode electrified the newsroom, and details of what staffers described as “the altercation” -- Baquet called it “a disagreement” -- spread to other Times bureaus. But once the story had made the rounds, it wasn’t Baquet the staffers were griping about. It was Abramson.

In recent months, Abramson has become a source of widespread frustration and anxiety within the Times newsroom. More than a dozen current and former members of the editorial staff, all of whom spoke to POLITICO on the condition of anonymity, described her as stubborn and condescending, saying they found her difficult to work with. If Baquet had burst out of the office in a huff, many said, it was likely because Abramson had been unreasonable.

Byers claimed after a year and a half on the job, "Abramson is already on the verge of losing the support of the newsroom," and "can seem disengaged or uncaring," and "has been notably absent....at key periods when the Times required leadership."

Byers didn't neglect to suck up to the New York Times as a journalistic institution:

Day after day, from foreign policy to state politics to special sections, The Times publishes some of the most impressive and informative journalism offered on the American newsstand. At the same time, it has embraced innovative digital strategies; “Snow Fall,” an interactive, multimedia article published in December, is one of several Times projects that has been heralded as showing the way forward for online journalism. All of which is to say that The New York Times continues to be a great paper.

This is the piercing anti-Abramson anecdote, which actually isn't overly shocking:

In one meeting, Abramson was upset with a photograph that was on the homepage. Rather than asking for a change to be made after the meeting, she turned to the relevant editor and, according to sources with knowledge of the meeting, said bluntly, “I don’t know why you’re still here. If I were you, I would leave now and change the photo.”

Baquet comes off the hero of the tale, although he's on record twice as punching walls:

Increasingly, it is Baquet, not Abramson, to whom staffers turn when they’re seeking a litmus test of the Times’ future. Where Abramson’s approach has caused anxiety, Baquet’s ability to march forward has provided reassurance.

Media liberals were aggrieved with Byers's treatment of Abramson, and shouts of sexism echoed through the media blogosphere and Twitter in defense of Abramson, who joined the paper in 1997. Abramson is a liberal journalist in good standing, a champion of Clarence Thomas accuser Anita Hill who wrote a book with Jane Mayer, "Strange Justice," arguing that Thomas probably lied.

Times media reporter Brian Stelter questioned the Politico story and also threw in a sexism accusation in an interview with Business Insider.

"A lot of the [Politico story] didn't ring true me. My sense is that she has the support of the news room. When I read the story I came away thinking, she sounds like she's the boss. That's what she is."

"I have to wonder if would have been written if there was a male editor-in-chief."

Actually, there is a prime example of a Times executive editor receiving unflattering notices from his underlings, one briefly noted by Byers: Howell Raines, a crusading liberal partisan who alienated the newsroom with his unpleasant, driven style, propensity for playing favorites, and boasts that he would raise the metabolism of the paper. Howell's reign of activist error lasted from September 2001 (the week before the terrorist attacks) to June 5, 2003, felled by the Jayson Blair plagiarism-fabrication scandal.

A Ken Auletta piece for New York magazine when Abramson took over had ominous Howell-like hints.

Another critique of Abramson's performance as bureau chief surfaced as well. Even her most devoted supporters say that she could be short with people, curtly cutting them off in mid-sentence. Those who failed to meet her exacting standards were often berated, sometimes publicly; her critics thought that she played favorites and was mercurial. Some members of her staff also found her egotistical, inclined to quote her own work and to say things like 'You have to read my book.' From such complaints and anxieties, ironic whispers began: the woman who had helped slay the king could be 'Howell-like.'