Littwin: Lean in — and get fired for being pushy
For once, the big journalism story isn’t about layoffs or declining revenues or cutbacks in coverage.
Instead, it’s about sexism, which may not exactly be progress.
As you’ve probably heard, The New York Times abruptly fired Jill Abramson, its first female executive editor, and explained that the reason for her dismissal was her management style. And so it began. In its story, The New Yorker quoted a Times source saying that Abramson was seen by her bosses as “pushy.” Once the p-word is out there, the story can go only one way.
And it gets worse. In the same New Yorker piece, Ken Auletta reported that Abramson had been paid less than Bill Keller, her predecessor as executive editor, and that she had sent in a lawyer to inquire about the difference.
Suddenly, it wasn’t just a journalism story or even a women-in-journalism story. This was The New York Times, the paragon of the liberal establishment, getting slammed on women’s pay and being accused of pushing out the female editor who dared to complain.
And so the question became: Was it really sexism that got Abramson fired?
The answer is that, whatever actually happened behind closed newsroom doors, there is no perfect answer. After all, there is sexism and then there’s sexism, and it’s hard to know where it begins and leaves off. Abramson was a powerful figure who was unexpectedly fired. There are few women who hold that kind of power in America — and the fact that it could be taken away, with so little explanation, by even more powerful men is at the heart of the story. Even the people directly involved can’t really answer the question. That’s the ugliness of racism or any of the other isms that are so fashionably dismissed these days — the not knowing.
And, of course, the story is more complicated than simply gender. The person who fired her, publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., is the same person who hired her less than three years ago. This is a newspaper that represents establishment-style stability even in this most unstable of newspaper days, which is what made the dismissal so stunning. Abramson didn’t get the typical farewell tour. She was there, and then she was gone.
Whatever Sulzberger was thinking, it couldn’t have been about public relations. This has become a minor disaster for the paper, which has desperately tried to put the story to rest, particularly in its own newsroom. It disputes the pay-difference angle. There were apparently morale issues in the newsroom. And Abramson had been at odds with Sulzberger from the time she got the job.
And as is often the case, her firing probably wasn’t one thing; it was many things. But the story also is straightforward enough. Men don’t worry about being called pushy. (A Politico piece last year on Abramson added “uncaring” and “condescending” for good measure.) And paycheck equity is a hot issue, even if Abramson, who was making more than $500,000, may not make for the most heart-rending example. And then there is the issue of women as bosses.
As Vox, the new website that calls itself the explainer, explained, “What happened to Jill Abramson shows everything that sucks about being a woman leader.”
Expect Time magazine to go with this angle: Where’s the line between leaning in and pushing back?
The Times has a history of tough, not-exactly-morale-boosting male bosses. Editors in my experience are rarely touchy-feely types. Legendary and beloved Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee was famous for encouraging what he called “creative tension” in the newsroom. If someone had called former Times editor Howell Raines pushy, he would have taken it as a compliment.
But it’s also true that Abramson’s successor is Dean Baquet, the paper’s first African-American editor, who made a point of talking about the promise of being a “humane” editor.
And as for the pay issue, it moved quickly from New York to Washington and onto the Senate floor, where Harry Reid got up to say that Abramson’s firing showed the need to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, which addresses the fact that women make 77 cents to a dollar for men. The bill has been blocked by Republicans and will be, of course, an issue in the coming midterm elections.
Why are women paid less? One explanation we’re told is cultural — that women are less likely to ask for a raise. And now you have the prospect of Abramson losing her job for insisting on one. Somehow it seems like a lose-lose.
But Abramson hasn’t lost entirely. She knows the news game. And even though she hasn’t spoken publicly since being fired, she’s winning the news cycle.
Just call up the photo her daughter Cornelia Griggs posted on Instagram. It shows Abramson in boxing gloves, wearing a tank top revealing a tattoo, leaning into a heavy bag. It has the hashtag #pushy and a caption reading, “Mom’s badass new hobby.”
The day before, Griggs posted photos of six powerful women, including Hillary Clinton, and wrote this, which could serve as a headline for the story: “Nobody puts baby in a corner.”
Mike Littwin runs Sundays in The Aspen Times. A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, he currently writes for ColoradoIndependent.com.
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