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Dear Jill: From One Pushy Media Dame to Another

Was Abramson "excessively or unpleasantly self-assertive or ambitious" or just a lady who knew how to get things done? It would be nice to know.

Let me be perfectly clear when it comes to ousted New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson: She has, on some occasions I have spent time with her, scared the bejesus out of me.

That said, it was in a very good way.

I am not sure whether it was her unusually focused stare, which can be unsettling. Or her supernatural ability to be completely still when listening to you, which can be discomforting in that it is not a stance that would put anyone at ease. Or even her bone-dry wit, which can be sharp but in a manner that is, to my mind, brilliant.

That steel-backed ability to communicate an aura of toughness and command has never been a minus to me, and, I would assume, not at the pinnacle of American journalism where the Times has long reigned. This is the big leagues, right, where there is no crying in baseball.

In any case, for those who know me, for someone to make me even slightly perturbed is no mean feat. Even the fearsome dragon of a media mogul Rupert Murdoch never much frightened me as I thought he might on the many times we have met (this is stupid of me, I know).

In fact, he apparently called me — although I don’t believe much in this dopey report — “crazy scary.”

Let’s also be clear, since too many people — both men and women — don’t seem to be able to grok this too well, despite it being obviously obvious: Phrases like “crazy scary” are often meant to send women quickly back behind the be-nice-ladies line and tap into the societal pressure for females to tamp down their confidence or package it in a more attractive way.

Other words that are also used: “Loud-mouthed.” “Jarring.” “Strident.” “Shrill.” “Overbearing.” “Bossy.” “Bitchy.” And, of course, “pushy” — which is in many ways the worst of them, as it is defined thusly: “Excessively or unpleasantly self-assertive or ambitious.”

That is the word that has now been stuck like glue to Abramson, who was very famously fired last week by publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr.

Sulzberger, who initially got his job by being born — well, let’s just say it, shall we? — Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., and Abramson, as reported by New Yorker writer Ken Auletta, “had a fraught relationship almost from the start of her tenure as executive editor, nearly three years ago.” (By the way, he picked her.)

According to Auletta, who has copiously chronicled the ups and downs of the Times over the years, it was a mutual dislike: “He saw her as difficult, high-handed, and lacking in finesse in her management of people at the paper. She, in turn, was increasingly resentful of his intrusions into her command of editorial operations, and of his increasingly close relationship with Mark Thompson, the company’s CEO, who came from England and the BBC to run the business side.”

In Auletta’s telling, the final straws were Abramson’s hiring of a lawyer over disparate pay issues — an increasingly hot-button issue everywhere — and also her attempted effort to snag a second managing editor for digital without clearing it first with Managing Editor Dean Baquet. While emails quoted by Auletta seem to indicate that Thompson was on board with that hire, the idea of Abramson not consulting a subordinate properly was apparently a pushy bridge too far for the Timesmen.

Baquet, an apparently nice-guy character in this, turned around and dissed Abramson in a dinner with Sulzberger, calling her “belligerent” (witchy woman alert!), in what sounds like an Upper West Side version of the Red Wedding from “Game of Thrones.”

(Is it just me or can you relate almost everything these days to “Games of Thrones”? Well played, HBO!)

While — as Auletta correctly notes — “abrasiveness has never been a firing offense at the Times,” Abramson’s toughness seems to be the central reason that Sulzberger decided to dispense with her, first by asking her to do the nice-girl thing and resign and, when she refused, by firing her in perhaps the most awesome example of PR gone very, very bad.

Sulzberger made it quantumly worse with a pair of tone-deaf memos, huffing and puffing in an attempt to convince whoever he needs to like him lots that he was justified in his actions.

(Side note: This is pretty much a moot point since his family completely controls the Times company. Another observation: Could you ever imagine Murdoch apologizing for one of his periodic axings of execs? You can almost hear him: “Crikey, mate — That’s right, I killed him/her dead and tweeted about it too, so sod off!”)

“The reason — the only reason — for that decision was concerns I had about some aspects of Jill’s management of our newsroom, which I had previously made clear to her, both face-to-face and in my annual assessment,” wrote Sulzberger in his first memo.

And in the second over the weekend — you kind of want to say at this point, hush up, Arthur, it’s a horrible mess you are making much worse by all this desperate ’splaining, which is getting pilloried on Twitter — he got more specific:

“During her tenure, I heard repeatedly from her newsroom colleagues, women and men, about a series of issues, including arbitrary decision-making, a failure to consult and bring colleagues with her, inadequate communication and the public mistreatment of colleagues. I discussed these issues with Jill herself several times and warned her that, unless they were addressed, she risked losing the trust of both masthead and newsroom. She acknowledged that there were issues and agreed to try to overcome them. We all wanted her to succeed. It became clear, however, that the gap was too big to bridge and ultimately I concluded that she had lost the support of her masthead colleagues and could not win it back.”

Let me see if I can say it more simply than Sulzberger: She was a real pain in my ass and so she had to go.

I can relate, to say the least. As one of the few top editors in tech journalism who is a woman and, even from my many years of reporting before that, I cannot tell you the number of times that I have been called a pain in the ass for my aggressive manner. Silly me, but that kind of tonality is exactly what makes for a successful journalist — you know, afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted — and what is more often than not needed in the sometimes rough-and-tumble world of media.

This characterization of me manifested all the time, and nearly every woman in the newsroom has a similar story. Asking for a lot and being firm about it shifts quickly into “you don’t have to be so rude,” although yes, I do. Make a definite assertion about a story or a project that is different from others in the group — you know, just to actually get new ideas out there — and you’re not a team player, although I had no idea work was a soccer game. Tell someone what you honestly think of them without a lot of pretty icing, and then you are a class-A, well, you know that word.

This has been a common theme in the coverage of the Abramson debacle — how different behavioral standards are applied to men and women, how strongly confident women get turned into waspish shrews, while men become commanding figures of authority. That’s the cliché, of course, but it does not make it any less true.

And there are men, men everywhere in positions of true power (by the way, of those I have met, most have been kind and diligent and talented), which makes you long for some role models who do not have a Y chromosome. That’s part of what attracted me to create my own media organization with Walt Mossberg (a model man, as far as I am concerned), so that other women and also men could see another strong-minded, outspoken woman in a position of power who was, as they say, kicking ass and taking names.

I actually learned that skill when I was a really young reporter at the Washington Post, when the legendary Ben Bradlee still held sway over the newsroom. He was every single fantastic thing people think of him as: Tough, smart, profane, funny, difficult and, yes, often very pushy.

He hardly knew who I was, of course, but one time when I was working in the business section covering the rapidly declining retail landscape in the Washington area, the lifeblood of the Post’s business, he did me a solid I have never forgotten. A major mogul who paid for a lot of the bills for the newspaper was haranguing me — via phone and via peckish lawyers — for being too hard on him in my coverage of the spectacular meltdown of his family business.

It was a mess through and through, and I had not backed off so far, but I had to admit I was scared when the heat from the mogul got a little stifling. Bradlee — who loved my stories of this retail version of “Dallas” and now and then came over and asked, “Whatcha got today, kid?” (he actually said “kid”) — was there when such a call came through and could see I was distressed.

After I explained the situation, he took only one second to give me a piece of advice that I have been following since: “If your reporting is right, tell them to f#*k off.”

Exactly, a maxim that actually works better than one might imagine it would.

I don’t mean to compare Abramson to Bradlee — no one compares to him easily — but I do look over her record in her three-year tenure and see a lot of amazing accomplishments that she presided over, and it makes me care very little about how warm and fuzzy she was.

That includes eight Pulitzer Prizes for stories ranging from the darker side of Apple’s business practices to corruption in China to the Times’ much-lauded multimedia “Snowfall” project about an avalanche. Just recently, a series of stories about college rape has been devastating to read. Abramson has also been increasing the number of women in more powerful positions at the newspaper, which is what anyone should do, although it almost always falls to a woman to actually get it done.

In its coverage of the situation, the Times has been curiously weak in its reporting on assertions from Sulzberger, “who was concerned about complaints from employees that [Abramson] was polarizing and mercurial,” the paper wrote days ago.

Well, that’s just typing words on a computer screen — which we all do from time to time. But given the massive attention here, I would have a lot more questions I would want answered if I were writing the real story.

Such as:

Who were these unhappy employees? How many did Sulzberger talk to? Can we hear from them? Are there those with other more positive opinions of Abramson? Why did Thompson ask Abramson in an email to stay only weeks before she was ousted? Can we get some detail into her alleged bad management? What was polarizing? What exactly did she do that was mercurial? Can we show she was capable in other ways? Did she obstruct progress by being so dang grumpy or was it one tactic to signal that change needed to be made? And, is she any worse than some other executive editors? (The last one I can answer myself — no!)

Oddly, the Times story also noted that “Ms. Abramson had recently engaged a consultant to help her with her management style,” but said little else. Exactly what was being suggested by that out-there tidbit?

In other words, some reporting would be nice from the New York Times about the New York Times.

So it will be interesting if its editors ordered up a deep dive into the story as soon as possible, whether it proved Sulzberger had a right to be so worried about his allegedly mercurial leader or if it turns out he made a very bad choice for himself, Abramson and the Times.

At least then, with this incredibly cloddish mess, the New York Times Co. would get something right.

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