Saunders: New York Times editor, fired last week, gets warm welcome in NC

bsaunders@newsobserver.comMay 19, 2014 

  • What she said

    Excerpts from Jill Abramson’s speech at Wake Forest University on Monday:

    • “Sure, losing a job you love hurts, but the work I revere – journalism that holds powerful institutions and people accountable – is what makes our democracy so resilient. This is the work I will remain very much a part of.”

    • “Not a chance!” – when asked whether she would remove her tattoo of the letter “T” from The New York Times logo.

    • “They faced discrimination in a much tougher, more male-dominated newspaper industry. And they went on to win Pulitzer Prizes.” – after mentioning journalism heroes Nan Robertson, a former Times reporter who wrote a book about the fight for gender parity at the paper, and Katharine Graham, former publisher of The Washington Post.

    • “Graduating from Wake Forest means all of you have experienced success already. And some of you – and now I’m talking to anyone who’s been dumped, not gotten the job you really wanted, or received those horrible rejection letters from grad school – you know the sting of losing or not getting something you badly want. When that happens, show what you are made of.”

    Source: Associated Press

— Monday was festive and sunny on Wake Forest University’s campus, and the school’s commencement speaker seemed determined to not sully it by bad-mouthing her former employer.

That doesn’t mean, though, that Jill Abramson was completely honest with the presumably impressionable young minds she was charged with inspiring as they venture forth into the world.

See, when Abramson told Wake Forest’s 2014 graduating class that “I’m in the same boat as many of you” because she, too, is unemployed, she was engaging in what can politely be called “hyperbole.”

Not-so-politely it can be called “blowing smoke up the grads’ gowns.”

Yes, technically, Abramson, who was fired from her job as executive editor of The New York Times last week, is without a job, but the one she had paid her half a million bucks a year, and she has a track record that should make finding another job easier for her than it would be for a 22-year-old novice.

Then again, maybe it won’t.

Editor qualifications

Abramson’s firing has focused a lot of attention on women’s pay vis-a-vis men, even though the man who hired and then fired her insists that her compensation was comparable to her male predecessor.

Times Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger, quoted in the Times, said he fired Abramson because she engaged in “arbitrary decision-making, a failure to consult and bring colleagues with her, inadequate communication and the public mistreatment of colleagues.”

Dang. I thought those were qualifications for the job. ( Note to Ed: Just kidding, boss. Tee hee.)

Rather than quelling charges of sexism, Sulzberger’s explanation created more. It sounds as though Sulzberger is saying Abramson lacked “people skills.”

Perhaps she did, but few, if any, of the great male or female editors I’ve known, worked for or read about were noted for their kindliness when a deadline was approaching. They were just as likely to question your parentage or to give you a dime and tell you to “go find a parking meter and violate yourself” as to compliment you.

Does that mean women are held to a different standard, then?

When The News & Observer was considering hiring me a couple of decades ago, the editor called my then-employer in Indiana and asked for her appraisal of me. Uh-oh, right?

‘Rather prickly’

Right. Her response – and I’m paraphrasing here for obvious reasons – was: “He’s not always the most decorous chap, and he can be rather prickly upon occasion, but he may be an asset to your organization.”

She used fewer – and more colorful – words to convey her view, of course.

Judging by the big stories the Times broke under Abramson’s stewardship and the awards it won, she was an asset, too.

Sulzberger obviously didn’t feel the same way.

Janae Shaheed, one of the Wake Forest student marshals who wore a gold and black sash while directing lost parents and such Monday, is scheduled to graduate from the school in 2018 with a degree in psychology.

She said Abramson’s speech resonated with her, “especially when she talked about what her father told her” about not quitting and being resilient.

That’s also the part Katie Neal, executive director for news and communications at Wake Forest, spoke of when I asked her what kind of responses the 14-minute speech received. I also asked if the number of requests for media passes for Abramson’s speech exceeded those sought for previous speakers.

“Definitely,” she said. “This was the commencement speech the whole world was watching.”

Neal said Abramson’s standing ovation “lasted longer than any I’ve ever seen at a Wake Forest commencement ceremony. ... It was a great message for them to hear: When life hands you lemons, how do you go about making lemonade? I think her exact quote to them was ‘Show what you’re made of.’ By all accounts, she nailed the landing.”

Considering what Abramson has been through so publicly the past week, I think she would’ve nailed it just by showing up.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or

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