Abramson Gets The Axe, But It's Sulzberger Who Lost His Head

May 16 2014, 4:02pm CDT | by

In 2011, the New York Times lambasted the GOP in an editorial that elevated “The War on Women” to top billing on the liberal agenda. With this week’s firing of its first female executive editor, Jill Abramson, the dominant perception is that the Times was throwing stones in a glass house.

The criticism may likely be grossly unfair, given the Times’ sizable roster of female editors (many of whom Abramson brought in); but that doesn’t change the fact that the paper is embroiled in a reputational crisis of its own design.

Now, instead of celebrating the first African-American executive editor in its history, The Paper of Record is fighting allegations that it’s been on the wrong side of the very war it helped define.

The firing of a chief executive seldom goes smoothly where reputation is concerned and it gets all the more complicated when the tenure in question is as short as Abramson’s – and in a business where editors are far more often “reassigned” for a purported managerial deficiency. Here, that deficiency is depicted as a “combative management style.”

There has long been conjecture that Abramson’s approach to running the paper was anything but warm and fuzzy, and it is now evident that her bristly nature did little to endear her to the Times’ staff or publisher Arthur Sulzberger. The situation apparently reached critical mass when Abramson learned she was being (allegedly) paid less than her predecessor and hired a lawyer to help prepare a complaint.

It may have been just the last in a series of episodes that strained the working relationship to the breaking point. Sulzberger needed to anticipate that the fair compensation complaint would serve as a prevailing narrative whenever you jettison someone as well-connected and media-savvy as Abramson.

The fact that he acted on Abramson without much tangible documented evidence of her detrimental impact on the newsroom (the kind of evidence all employers need to provide) only enables that narrative to thrive unchecked. It’s possible the Times’ status as a liberal demigod might have beguiled Sulzberger to believe the paper would be beyond reproach on issues of gender equality.

In fact, the opposite is true. When you make your bones espousing a code of definitive ethics, you’d better live that agenda. Would this story have half the traction had it been a Rupert Murdoch media property accused of discriminatory pay practices?

Significantly, it was the social media – the very media that are squeezing traditional bastions of journalism like the Times – that broke the inequality angle and enhanced its allure. According to Politico, liberal blogs such as Think Progress, Salon, and Vox first reported on Abramson’s frustration with her pay. On Wednesday, both “Abramson” and “New York Times” were trending on Twitter and Abramson’s name has been tweeted more than 19,000 times in just the last 24 hours (as of this writing).

The viral firestorm even reached the U.S. Senate where erstwhile Times ally Harry Reid (D – Nev.) cited Abramson’s plight as a “perfect example, if it’s true, of why we should pass paycheck equity.”

Moving forward, the online onslaught will only compound the challenge ahead for Sulzberger and the Times. After all, what good is that barrel of ink when your audience communicates via, and is influenced by, ones and zeroes?

There are times in every business when a boss must accommodate someone with leverage simply because of optics. Here a lot more is also at stake. Jill Abramson was, by most accounts, effective if not affable. Indeed, it was on her watch that the paper returned to profitability.

Oh, by the way….is it any less socio-politically heretical to find a woman’s “combative management style” more vexatious than a man’s? A man can earn begrudged plaudits, and even respect bordering on affection, for being oh such a tough boss. But that’s a question for another day.

Richard Levick, Esq., is Chairman and CEO of LEVICK, a global strategic communications firm.


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