Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Be careful what you believe about the Times and Jill Abramson right now

Jill Abramson speaks with the New Yorker's Ken Auletta. Thos Robinson/Getty Images for The New Yorker

It's worth being skeptical about the details dribbling out of the break between the New York Times and Jill Abramson right now.

A good rule of thumb for this kind of thing is that if the principals aren't talking, then the stories are probably wrong — or at least incomplete — in very important ways. It's almost impossible for a reporter, no matter how good, to deliver a clear description of a negotiation where the people doing the negotiating aren't cooperating. Instead you get a lot of second-hand (or worse) information, some of it from sources who don't know nearly as much as they think they do, some of it dressed-up to sound more authoritative by reporters or pundits who want to seem like they're more in the loop than they are.

"As part of a settlement agreement between her and the paper, neither side would go into detail about her firing," reports the New York Times. Perhaps that's not true. With anonymous sources you never really know who's talking and who isn't. But at this juncture it's probably mostly true. The Sulzbergers are likely trying to ride this out. It sounds like Abramson is legally barred from discussing the break. Friends and allies might step into the breach, but so too will hanger-ons, troublemakers, and earnest observers who think they know a lot more than they do. Moreover, this seems to have been an incredibly well-kept secret in the Times newsroom. The universe of people who know the real story is, for now, quite small — and they're only in the know because one side or the other is sure they won't talk.

Which isn't to say the reporting coming out now is wrong. It's just not quite right, either. There's some truth in it, a lot of truth missing, a few lies mixed in for good measure, and it'll be a long time till we can tell which is which.

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