New York Times
7:47 am
Fri May 30, 2014

'Period Of Turmoil' Preceded Abramson Firing, Says Top Editor At 'Times'

Originally published on Fri June 6, 2014 9:57 am

Dean Baquet sat in his new office in Midtown Manhattan, the very picture of composure and precision, as he described the top-level dysfunction that led to the firing of Jill Abramson as executive editor of The New York Times and his promotion to replace her as the top news executive there.

The firing, made public on May 14, involved three major actors: Abramson, Baquet (pronounced baah-kay) and the paper's corporate chairman and publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. In his first public comments on the matter, Baquet told NPR that Abramson was fired because of her failed relationship with Sulzberger and with senior editors — especially him.

"It's hard to run an organization if you are at odds with the publisher, with your leadership team, including your No. 2," Baquet said in a wide-ranging interview lasting roughly an hour. "Obviously, there was a significant disagreement between Jill and the publisher, and Jill and me."

Baquet, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who has been national editor, Washington bureau chief, and managing editor at the Times, as well as the editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Times, appeared to agree to talk to NPR about his experiences as a way of acknowledging and then shedding the intense and negative media focus on Abramson's firing.

In the interview, Baquet confirmed that he had bluntly told Sulzberger of his dismay at her intentions to bring in another chief deputy and acknowledged that those actions helped lead to Abramson's firing. But Baquet also said he gave no ultimatum.

"I never said to anyone it's me or Jill. I think that's a simplistic calculation," Baquet said. "I don't think there's any question that I made it known that I was a little unhappy."

In recent days, Baquet has taken to calling Times reporters and editors to calm them down and seek their expertise.

"I don't think it's any secret that my rise to be executive editor was preceded by a period of turmoil," Baquet said. "One of my first jobs is to make sure that the turmoil which was inevitable doesn't get in the way of what The New York Times does best. So I want to hear from people if they have suggestions for how I can do it."

Through an associate, Abramson declined to comment for this story, which relies on interviews with two dozen current and former colleagues and associates of Abramson and Baquet. Almost none were willing to speak on the record, as they either still work at the newspaper or still have professional ties to one or more of the figures at the heart of the controversy. In addition, Sulzberger asked senior editors not to speak about what happened — even with their staffs — and told journalists there not to go looking for answers, though his paper has provided some coverage.

Nonetheless, those interviews yield a complex portrait of Abramson as a brilliant, brusque and occasionally brutal news executive.

Previous Times editors have been legendary for tyrannical streaks, among them A.M. Rosenthal, perhaps the most consequential top editor of the Times over the past half-century, and Howell Raines, who was praised for the paper's coverage amid the chaos of the September 2001 terrorist attacks and was forced out two years later amid the crisis of plagiarism and fabrication involving the young reporter Jayson Blair.

In the interview, Baquet praised Abramson's news judgment and said they had complemented one another's strengths. The paper won eight Pulitzers during her tenure, and many more during earlier years while she served as a top news executive there. But Baquet pointedly criticized the journalistic tendency to romanticize hard-driving editors of the past.

"I'm not commenting on Jill's relationship with the newsroom or management style. I'll let others do that," Baquet said. "But one thing that people say is newspapers always have tough [leaders]. I mean I've seen many elegies to 'the city editor who changed my life because he was really nasty to me for six months and it made me a better person.' I think that's nuts."

He added, "I don't think that leaders have to be or should be rough on their people. Leaders have to make tough decisions."

Yet Baquet acknowledges he too can become intense amid argument. I asked Baquet about maps that reporters said had been tacked up at the Times' Washington offices to cover several holes he had punched in walls down there.

He laughed and said, "It's true. I should have a lawyer with me for this part, shouldn't I?

"I have a temper," Baquet said, "In each case I was mad at somebody above me in rank. That's not an excuse, but it's a fact."

Left unstated: Abramson was one of a handful of editors who outranked Baquet when he was Washington bureau chief.

Amanda Bennett held senior editing roles at The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News among other notable news organizations. She was named the first female editor to lead the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2003, and was herself unceremoniously fired less than three years later when a new group took ownership of the paper.

"Women leaders — and people I've talked to, not just in journalism — feel they're kind of caught between two things," Bennett said. "If you are kind and nice and supportive in [a] way that would be very welcomed in a male boss, you're seen as soft. And if you're aggressive and pushy and demanding, you're seen as too hard."

Bennett, who says she knows and admires Abramson, Baquet and Sulzberger, stressed that she had no knowledge of the specifics at the Times. But she also wrote that for a lot of women "this event hit like a lightning strike to dry tinder."

When Abramson became The New York Times' top editor in 2011, she had proved herself first at The Wall Street Journal and then at the Times in a series of senior editing positions. She told NPR that she was mindful of her status as the paper's first female editor.

"I'm extremely conscious that I stand on the shoulders of women, some of whom, because I didn't come to the Times till 1997, I never met," Abramson said at the time.

While Sulzberger was besotted with the idea of naming Abramson to that job, dealing with Abramson herself proved more complicated.

Abramson's pioneering role at the Times as its first female executive editor translated to a high profile in the profession and among female executives. That often meant absences from the newsroom at notable moments. And sometimes her absences were more mundane. Several editors said she had to be beseeched to come to the newsroom from her home to oversee coverage and boost morale during Superstorm Sandy, which hit New York City and New Jersey hard.

Abramson told two associates earlier this year that she was uncertain of her standing with Sulzberger and was not sure how long she would ultimately continue in the job.

More recently, Abramson confronted her senior corporate executives, arguing male editors had been better compensated than she had. Her predecessor, Bill Keller, had received more in compensation, and when she was managing editor, a slightly less senior male colleague was paid considerably more. She consulted a lawyer, raising hackles further.

As Abramson's internal complaints have become public, the Times has argued that she was mixing apples and oranges. Pensions, for example, reflect longevity, so executives such as Keller who had been there longer would see greater compensation. And all executive pensions were frozen amid the global financial crisis, two years before Keller stepped down to become a columnist. (He has since left the paper.) The better-paid male colleague in a slightly lesser role arrived as a senior editor in an earlier era of more lavish pay.

Some female news executives, such as Bennett, argue those explanations describe how such disparities occur but fail to convince why they are appropriate.

Sulzberger told staffers that neither Abramson's gender nor her challenge over pay influenced his decision to fire her.

Sulzberger also hired the paper's first female editorial page editor, Gail Collins, who returned to writing books and columns after six years, and the parent company's first female CEO, Janet Robinson, whom he fired in 2012.

"I do not believe, by the way, that Jill was fired because of gender," Baquet told NPR.

Abramson's firing hinged on failed relationships, Baquet said, with her boss and her deputies.

Sulzberger told staffers that Abramson had misled top executives amid plans to hire a managing editor for digital news with a status equal to Baquet. The recruit was to be Janine Gibson, the top editor of the Guardian's U.S. news operations and website.

Baquet confided to other editors that Abramson's new hire could marginalize him, and he shared his frustration with Sulzberger. The publisher feared losing a future executive editor, believing in the promise of Baquet more than the friction-laden present of Abramson. On May 14, Sulzberger announced his decision.

Baquet has told some of his colleagues that until recently he had always been able to work closely with Abramson. And he argued that because of the circumstances of her departure, Abramson is failing to get her due.

"For most of my relationship with Jill, the arguments we had were the debates that two very strong-willed people have when they're running a big news organization. They weren't nasty and I have tremendous respect for her," Baquet said. "I mean it when I say that three years from now nobody is going to remember this. What they'll remember is she was a great journalist and a landmark editor."

PART 2: A profile of Dean Baquet and the challenges confronting The New York Times as he begins as executive editor.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

When New York Times executive editor, Jill Abramson, was fired a couple weeks ago there was an uproar in the media world and beyond. The first woman to lead The Times was given less than three years in the position. Her firing was both abrupt and public as was the finger-pointing over why she was let go.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Ultimately it seemed to come down to her troubled relationship with Times publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, and also with the managing editor, Dean Baquet. Baquet was chosen to replace Abramson. A Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, he is the first African-American executive editor in New York Times history.

GREENE: And in his first interview since his promotion, Dean Baquet met with NPR's David Folkenflik to talk about the events that brought him to the top job.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: I couple hours before I sat down with Dean Baquet on Wednesday afternoon, he headed a few miles north to Columbia University for an awards banquet.

How was lunch today at the Pulitzers?

DEAN BAQUET: It was good. I saw Jill there, and she should be there. I mean, she was the executive editor when these two works won the Pulitzer Prize. So I walked up to her and congratulated her. I think she was a terrific editor. I consider her a friend.

FOLKENFLIK: Yet, Jill Abramson didn't sit at The New York Times' table this week, as she has in years past. Two weeks ago the paper's corporate chairman and publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, summoned his editors for a surprise announcement. He had fired her. He later told staffers, it had to do with her treatment of others in the newsroom and her lack of candor with him. Baquet had been Abramson's arrival for the top spot three years ago and became her chief deputy. He took over immediately and has embarked on conference calls with reporters and editors.

BAQUET: I don't think it is any secret that my rise to be executive editor was preceded by a period of turmoil. One of my first jobs is to make sure that the turmoil, which was inevitable, doesn't get in the way of the - of what The New York Times does best. I want to hear from people they have suggestions for how I can do it.

FOLKENFLIK: Baquet spoke to me amiably but carefully. His job title so new, his business cards still read manager editor. Baquet said he would not traffic in details of newsroom dysfunction, but acknowledged his role at the core of the turmoil.

BAQUET: Obviously there was a significant disagreement between Jill and the publisher and Jill and me.

FOLKENFLIK: Jill Abramson would not comment for this story but she told several associates that her rapport with him was fraying. In recent performance reviews he had given her poor marks for alienating other senior editors. This story relies on interviews with two dozen current and former colleagues and associates of Abramson and Baquet. Those interviews the yield a portrait of Abramson as a brilliant, brusque and occasionally brutal news executive. Baquet is considered a warm and affirming presence, and a relentless champion for tough investigative reporting. In our interview, Baquet pointedly criticized the journalistic tendency to romanticize hard-driving editors of the past.

BAQUET: I'm not commenting on Jill's relationship with the newsroom or management style. I'll let others do that. The one thing that people say is newspapers always have tough - I mean, I've seen many eulogies to the city editor who changed my life because he was really nasty to me for six months and made me a better person. I think that's nuts.

FOLKENFLIK: Yet, Baquet acknowledged he, too, can become intense in mid-argument. I asked Baquet about the maps that reporters said had been tacked up at The Times' Washington offices to cover several holes he had punched in walls down there.

BAQUET: It's true. I should have a lawyer with me for this part, shouldn't I? I did - I have a temper. In each case I was mad at somebody above me in rank. That's not an excuse, but it's a fact.

FOLKENFLIK: Abramson was one of a handful of editors who outranked Baquet when he was Washington Bureau chief. Amanda Bennett held several senior senior editing roles at The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News, among other news organizations. She was named the first woman editor to lead The Philadelphia Inquirer 2003 and was fired less than three years later.

AMANDA BENNETT: Women leaders and people I've talked to, not just in journalism, feel that they're kind of caught between two things. One is if you are kind and nice and supportive in a way that would be very welcomed in a male boss, you're seen as soft, and if you're aggressive and pushy and demanding you're seen as too hard.

FOLKENFLIK: Bennett, who says she knows and admires Abrahamson, Baquet and Sulzberger, stressed that she has no knowledge of the specifics at The Times, but she has also written that for a lot of women, quote, "this event hit like a lightning strike to dry tinder." When Abramson became The New York Times' top editor in 2011, she had proven herself first at The Wall Street Journal and then at The Times in a series of senior editing positions. She told me then, that she was mindful of her status as the paper's first female editor.

JILL ABRAMSON: I'm extremely conscious that I stand on the shoulders of women - some of whom, because I didn't come to The Times until 1997, I never met.

FOLKENFLIK: While Sulzberger appeared besotted the idea of naming Abramson to that job, he never really warmed to dealing with Abramson herself. Earlier this year Abramson confronted her corporate bosses, arguing male editors had been better compensated and she consulted a lawyer. The Times argued that she was mixing apples and oranges. Pensions, for example, reflect longevity so they benefited executives who had been there longer. But some female new executives, including Amanda Bennett, say such descriptions explain how disparities occur but not why they're appropriate. Sulzberger said neither Abramson's gender nor her challenge over pay influenced his decision to fire her. Again, Dean Baquet.

BAQUET: I do not believe, by the way, that Jill was fired because of gender. I just don't believe that.

FOLKENFLIK: Abramson's firing hinged on failed relationships, Baquet said, with her boss and with her deputies. Sulzberger told staffers that Abramson had misled top executives and made plans to hire a managing editor for digital news with a status equal to Baquet. Baquet confided to other editors that Abramson's new hire could marginalize him. Baquet shared his frustration with Sulzberger and the publisher feared losing a future executive editor, believing in the promise of Baquet more than the friction-laden present of Abramson. I asked Baquet about his role in Abramson's firing.

I've talked to people who say, you know, in thinking about this it's not as though Dean was a complete bystander to this sequence of events. At a moment where something happened, which clearly upset him greatly, he spoke forthrightly and directly in a way that altered the course of events. Do you dispute that characterization?

BAQUET: Without going into details, I would not dispute that characterization. I think that's a fair characterization.

FOLKENFLIK: Baquet emphasized he made no ultimatum.

BAQUET: The one thing I did not say - by the way, just to say on the record - I never said to anyone it's me or Jill. I think that's a simplistic calculation. But I don't think there's any question that I made it known that I was a little unhappy.

FOLKENFLIK: Baquet has told some of his reporters that until recently he has always been able to work closely with Abramson, and yet he argued that because of the circumstances of her departure Abramson is failing to get her due.

BAQUET: For most of my relationship with Jill, the arguments we had were the debates that two very strong-willed people have when they're running a big news organization. They weren't nasty, and I have tremendous respect for her. And I mean it when I say, three years from now nobody is going to remember this. What they'll remember is she was a great journalist and a landmark editor.

FOLKENFLIK: Tonight, you can hear more of that interview on All Things Considered. I'll take a look at the challenges confronting The New York Times and its new editor, Dean Baquet. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.