Fired NYTimes Editor: Gender Not 'The Whole Explanation'

Fired NYTimes Editor: Gender Not 'The Whole Explanation'

By Liz Goodwin

Former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson told Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric on Thursday that she doesn’t believe she was abruptly fired last May solely because she is a woman.

“I don’t see gender as being the whole explanation, by any means, of what happened,” Abramson said in the wide-ranging interview about her dismissal and what she hopes young women can learn from her example.

In the interview, Abramson confirmed reports that her ouster was in part due to what some at the Times perceived to be her abrasive “management style.”  During the interview, she said she recognized that at times she was “brusque” and “push[ed]. . . too hard,”  but suggested the approach reflected her high standards and a desire to "get the story behind the story." Said Abramson: “I am the editor I am.”

Abramson said she was amused and surprised that she briefly became such an object of scrutiny after her sacking that a bevy of reporters trailed her while she walked her dog around the block. “It’s somewhat irksome to see so much focus on the issue of why was I fired,” she said, adding that people should care about The New York Times’ product more than the “palace intrigue” that goes on behind the scenes. Abramson insulated herself from the controversy, refusing to read any news stories about it at first.

But her firing sparked a larger discussion about whether female leaders are held to a different standard from men who hold the same jobs. Abramson, the first woman to lead the paper in its 162-year history, was criticized for a hard-charging leadership style that would have gone unremarked upon in a man, some argued. She had also recently looked into why she was paid less than her male predecessor, Bill Keller, according to the New Yorker. The Times said Keller and Abramson’s pay was “comparable” and that her dismissal was over her management style.

But the story of pay inequality quickly spread on social media and elsewhere, with women using “#TeamJill” hashtags on Twitter to express their frustration with the double standard they see for women leaders.

Two months later, Abramson is talking about the double standards that women face in the workplace.

“I think that women are scrutinized and criticized in a somewhat different way, and that certain qualities that are seen in men as being the qualities of a leader … are somehow not seen in as attractive a light when a woman is involved,” she told Couric.

The lifelong New Yorker said she did briefly work with a management coach who watched her conduct a few meetings and gave her feedback. “I may not have been her most successful student, given the outcome,” Abramson joked.  The management coach pointed out that at times, she didn’t appear to be listening closely enough to her employees, Abramson told Couric.

Ultimately, though, she believes she was a good newsroom leader, who pushed her reporters and editors to do their best work. “I don’t have too many regrets about the kind of journalist or the editor I was,” she said. One of her few regrets as an editor is that she did not raise more objections about the Times’ coverage of Iraq before the war, when the paper reported too credulously about Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction. “I wish I had been paying a lot more attention,” she said, adding, “That’s a period I have spent a fair amount of time doing some soul-searching on.”

Abramson declined to say whether she believes her inquiries about whether she was being paid as much as her male predecessor had anything to do with her firing, saying that was “another layer of autopsy,” she didn’t want to go into. “I think that it’s important for women in the workplace to learn how to negotiate well for themselves, and to be paid fairly and as well as men at their same level who have the same talents,” Abramson said.

When asked if women might be discouraged from negotiating for themselves given what happened in her case, the former editor said that they might, but that they should still push for what they’re owed. “Every aspect of your work life if you are standing up for something … can be risky, but you still need to do the right thing,” she said.

Abramson has remained mostly quiet about how and why she was ousted, even as she found herself in the center of a controversy about the gender pay gap and women in leadership. This week, she broke her silence and appeared on Fox News to talk about the Obama administration’s lack of transparency and told Cosmopolitan magazine in an interview that she cried when she read a Politico story last year that quoted anonymous staffers calling her “condescending” and “stubborn.”

When Couric asked about rumors that a dispute with her former deputy, Dean Baquet, who succeeded her as executive editor, contributed to her firing, she balked. “Now we’re really in the grassy knoll, Katie, and I don’t want to go in there with you,” she said. She said she doesn’t want to contribute to the “endless speculation” about what ended her 11-year run at the Times.

Abramson will be teaching narrative nonfiction in the fall at Harvard University, where she attended college, and is working on an investigative news story in the meantime. But don’t expect all the juicy details of her firing to appear in a book any time soon — Abramson says she’s not interested in writing it. “I doubt it,” she said. “Really, I think there are maybe 20 people in the universe who would be interested in that.”

 Watch Full Interview: