Before the publication of her latest book, Merchants of Truth, Jill Abramson was a hero for many women in journalism.
Her work as a reporter has had enduring influence — in 1994, she co-wrote a book with journalist Jane Mayer on the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, which took on new relevance when Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was accused of sexual assault. In 2011, she became the first female executive editor of the New York Times, and in the years that followed, she was credited with promoting more women into top jobs at the newspaper. When she was fired in 2014 — and it was revealed she’d been paid less than her predecessor, Bill Keller — she became both a cautionary tale of gender discrimination and a role model of resistance.
“I knew her as a sort of trailblazer,” journalist Talia Lavin, who has written for the Times and the New Yorker and until recently had an opinion column at HuffPost, told Vox.
But earlier this year, reporters noticed a number of errors in Merchants of Truth, some of which seemed to point to a dismissive attitude toward younger journalists. Controversy around the book grew when Abramson was accused of plagiarism — an allegation she has denied, though she admitted to sometimes omitting credit in the service of creating a “seamless narrative.”
Now Abramson’s status as a role model for women journalists is in doubt. The controversy around her book has raised questions about whether she’s out of touch with the economic realities that many journalists face today, and whether she respects people whose career paths may look different from her own. The arc of Abramson’s career is a story of apparent discrimination, but it may also be a story of privilege — how it influences who rises to the top, and how it may cloud one’s vision along the way.
Many women journalists looked up to Abramson — and her star was burnished by her firing
Abramson’s ascension to the top spot at the Times had both symbolic and tangible importance to women at the paper, as Amanda Hess reported at Slate in 2014. “Among the women here, there was a deep appreciation that another woman was high up at the Times,” a young female staffer told Hess. Abramson promoted women into top jobs, including Washington bureau chief and editor of the book review. (Abramson discussed Merchants of Truth and the plagiarism allegations with Vox’s Sean Illing but has not responded to a request for comment for this story.)
Outside the Times, her reporting resonated. Britni de la Cretaz, a freelance sportswriter, told Vox that before publication of Merchants of Truth, she was most familiar with Abramson from Strange Justice, her book on the Thomas hearings. “I really respect both Jane and Jill and that book was a big source and text that I have come back to multiple times,” she said.
Abramson was both relatable and fascinating to younger women at the Times, Hess reported, from her friendships with other prominent female journalists like Mayer to the famous Times “T” symbol tattooed on her back.
“Jill leaned in before everyone else, ever,” one woman told Hess. “Before Lean In. She’s pre-Sheryl Sheryl [Sandberg], but with more style and more class.”
Then Abramson was fired after just two and a half years on the job.
I had just been hired at the Times when Abramson’s firing was announced. Because I worked in the opinion section, which was outside her purview, I didn’t know her. But I felt the worry among my female colleagues when her firing was announced. If the first female top editor of the paper couldn’t hang on to her job, some wondered, what would become of us?
Our worries were intensified by the circumstances of Abramson’s firing. “There was no simple reason why I was fired,” Abramson writes in Merchants of Truth. The immediate catalyst, according to her, was a disagreement with Dean Baquet — then the paper’s managing editor, who reported to her — over hiring a high-level editor from the Guardian. Abramson admits to being a “less than stellar manager,” but says she had also been “judged by an unfair double standard applied to many women leaders.”
During her tenure, staff had complained anonymously to the media that she was “difficult.” One 2013 Politico story stood out — the piece began with an anecdote about Baquet storming out of the newsroom after slamming his hand into a wall. But somehow, this became a story about Abramson’s failings as a leader.
“More than a dozen current and former members of the editorial staff, all of whom spoke to Politico on the condition of anonymity, described her as stubborn and condescending, saying they found her difficult to work with,” Politico’s Dylan Byers wrote. “If Baquet had burst out of the office in a huff, many said, it was likely because Abramson had been unreasonable.”
In the Times newsroom, Abramson writes in Merchants of Truth, “I was seen as playing favorites and as being overconfident of my opinions. I had a bad habit of cutting people off and didn’t listen enough. In short, I was seen as ‘pushy.’ This last perception is a familiar refrain about women in powerful jobs.”
Meanwhile, after her firing, it was revealed that Abramson had been paid significantly less than the previous executive editor, Bill Keller, for doing the same job. As Abramson writes in Merchants of Truth, the Times argued that, taking into account company stock and bonuses, the two had comparable compensation packages. But to many, it looked like evidence that the gender wage gap persisted even at the highest levels of journalism.
Abramson, meanwhile, handled her firing with aplomb. In Merchants of Truth, she writes that she refused to release a resignation statement, forcing the Times to admit to firing her. And she embraced some of the gendered criticisms levied against her as badges of honor.
After Abramson’s firing, her daughter posted a photo on Instagram of Abramson wearing boxing gloves, with the hashtag #pushy. The photo went viral, even appearing on the cover of the New York Post. A friend created a line of “Pushy” necklaces, and Abramson wore one onstage at the 2014 Code Conference, during an interview with Recode’s Kara Swisher. (Recode, like Vox, is part of Vox Media.)
By the end of 2014, Abramson had become something of an inspiration to younger women in media — someone who had, it seemed, fallen victim to sexist expectations of female bosses, but who had emerged unapologetic and undaunted, controlling the narrative of her departure. Everyone was watching to see what she did next.
Errors and plagiarism allegations threaten Abramson’s role model status
Even before it was released, Merchants of Truth had begun to complicate Abramson’s status with younger journalists, as reporters began to notice errors in the galleys. Arielle Duhaime-Ross, a correspondent for HBO’s Vice News Tonight, identified six errors in a paragraph of the book that dealt with her work. (Duhaime-Ross declined to comment to Vox for this story.) Abramson misidentified Duhaime-Ross as transgender and said she had no background in environmental policy when she began covering the environment for Vice. In fact, Duhaime-Ross has a master’s degree in science, health, and environmental reporting.
Adding to the impact of these errors was the context in which they occurred. Of Duhaime-Ross and other Vice journalists, Abramson wrote that “most of the on-air talent was very young and had scant experience; only three had ever reported on camera before. What they had was ‘the look.’ They were diverse: just about every race and ethnicity and straight, gay, queer, and gender non-conforming. They were impossibly hip, with interesting hair.”
As Duhaime-Ross tweeted, Abramson painted her “as an ‘edgy’ but inept diversity hire, rather than a competent journalist” — based in part on inaccurate information about her experience.
Such errors made some younger journalists wonder if Abramson looked down on the kinds of online news outlets where many of them got their start.
“The errors that were pointed out had to do with journalists of my generation who maybe didn’t come up through traditional newsrooms,” de la Cretaz said. “It was a little disheartening to think that she might not have the same amount of respect for people who are taking less traditional paths than she had.”
Abramson told Illing she did not plagiarize, “but I did make mistakes in the footnotes, and there are some uncited passages.” When pressed, she said she should have cited some source material in the text of the book rather than relying on footnotes, but, “I was trying to write a seamless narrative, and to keep breaking it up with ‘according to’ qualifiers would have been extremely clunky.”
Her explanations aside, many who had previously looked up to Abramson were deeply disappointed. “She’s really, really let me down,” tweeted Rebecca Schoenkopf, editor of the online magazine Wonkette.
well, because I've been on Team Jill Abramson Would Never Have Let The Times Become This Clusterfuck It Is Today, for a long time. And she's really, really let me down. The plagiarism here is undeniable.— Rebecca Schoenkopf, Wonkette Editrix, King Of You (@commiegirl1) February 7, 2019
The allegation of plagiarism “calls everything she’s ever written into question,” de la Cretaz said. She noted that Abramson’s February 2018 New York magazine article calling for the impeachment of Clarence Thomas was criticized for a paragraph that was very similar to work by Ian Millhiser in ThinkProgress — a link and attribution were added after publication, according to the Washington Post.
Abramson also inspired criticism with her comments in interviews around her book’s publication. She raised eyebrows when she told the Cut’s Anna Silman that she never recorded interviews: “I have an almost photographic memory and so I wait a beat or two while they’re onto something else, and then I write down the previous thing they said.”
She sounded out of touch to some when, in the same interview, she offered her advice to laid-off journalists: “There are jobs. It’s very destabilizing to lose one but everyone has a network of journalist friends who work at other places and something will open up.”
The idea that “everyone” has a network of friends with stable jobs struck Lavin as emblematic of an older generation’s attitude toward job-seeking — “that baby boomer thing of, ‘Look for a job and you’ll find it’” — that’s out of step with the climate in which many younger journalists find themselves.
“As someone who’s between full-time jobs in journalism right now, it just felt like a slap in the face,” she said.
Overall, Abramson seems to have done much to alienate the younger journalists for whom she once served as a role model. If she once seemed like a cooler version of Sheryl Sandberg, she now faces some of the same kinds of criticism Sandberg has faced — that she may have little to say to people less privileged or elite than herself.
“If you’re going to succeed in the system as it currently stands, you’re working within a patriarchal framework,” de la Cretaz said. “In an oppressive system, the people who succeed are kind of playing into that.”
For Lavin, both Sandberg’s story and Abramson’s are a reminder that it’s often the most privileged women who are given the opportunity to be trailblazers in their industries. “By virtue of that privilege, you’re more likely to break through, but you also have the shortcomings of and the blinders of privilege,” she said. Meanwhile, “it’s not like the systems they had to break through go away. They still govern their reigns, and especially their falls.”
The male-dominated media industry through which Abramson rose hasn’t become much more egalitarian today, and the same forces that helped oust her from the Times may still be at work in the public reception of her book. Lavin said she’s noticed in the coverage of Merchants of Truth “an element of pointed schadenfreude that I haven’t seen in other stories of literary falls from grace, and I wonder if that’s because Jill Abramson is a woman.”
She noted that last week’s other literary scandal, that of mystery novelist and editor Dan Mallory, who was accused of fabricating stories from his past as well as leaving cups of urine in his boss’s office, was received in some quarters as “the story of a colorful rogue,” while the narrative around Abramson sometimes seemed to carry a different message: “You got too big for your britches, lady; we’re going to cut you down to size.”
“As a woman, the higher you go, the more eager people are to take their knives out and cut you down,” Lavin said. “There’s no forgiveness for women who break barriers.”