When Jill Abramson was unceremoniously fired from The New York Times, something was missing: Jill Abramson.
Howell Raines, the executive editor who was dismissed in the aftermath of the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal, was allowed to address the newsroom upon his dismissal with his wife at his side, but Abramson wasn’t even present when her removal was announced.
Something else was missing, too: a reasonable, obvious explanation for her removal. Instead the truth is still revealing itself days later, trickling out crumb by crumb. The optics are already terrible. Which is embarrassing, really; the Times is a media organization. You’d think they’d have a better media plan than “we had an issue with management in the newsroom.”
In place of a voice from the Times were the voices of what felt like every woman everywhere; not just women in media, but every woman who has ever worked. Abramson’s dismissal was shocking, but the story emerging behind it was anything but. A woman shoved off the edge of a glass cliff after less than three years on the job. Another one bites the dust.
That’s what’s really been striking to me about all this coverage: how personal it is, especially when female journalists weigh in. Ann Friedman in The Cut on the way women in workplaces everywhere can never really be sure “what’s sexism and what’s you.” Amanda Hess’s piece in Slate on how “to many women at the Times, Abramson was everything,” filled with quotes from rising female reporters who use surprisingly intimate language to talk about their highest-up editor: they held a “deep appreciation” for her, they “felt possessive and proud of Jill,” they “related to and empathized with her.” Rebecca Traister in The New Republic: “Abramson’s firing was among the most harsh and humiliating I’ve ever seen play out in the media’s recent history.”
I was thinking about all of this yesterday, while thinking about commencement — ’tis the season for graduation speakers, be they celebrated, protested, rescheduled or replaced! — and it reminded me of one of the best commencement addresses, certainly in my lifetime and maybe ever: Nora Ephron at Wellesley, 1996.
“Don’t underestimate how much antagonism there is toward women and how many people wish we could turn the clock back. One of the things people always say to you if you get upset is, don’t take it personally, but listen hard to what’s going on and, please, I beg you, take it personally. Understand: every attack on Hillary Clinton for not knowing her place is an attack on you. Underneath almost all those attacks are the words: get back, get back to where you once belonged. When Elizabeth Dole pretends that she isn’t serious about her career, that is an attack on you. The acquittal of O.J. Simpson is an attack on you. Any move to limit abortion rights is an attack on you — whether or not you believe in abortion. The fact that Clarence Thomas is sitting on the Supreme Court today is an attack on you.”
Jill Abramson’s firing feels personal to female journalists, and it’s not because everyone is projecting, or spinning a golden think piece out of a bunch of straw nothing. It’s not because writers like to take things about other people and make those things about ourselves (although we are guilty of this at times; who isn’t?). It feels personal because it is personal.
If even Abramson can’t get equal pay for equal work at the Times, what does that mean for the 22-year-old college graduate scrambling to climb from an unpaid internship to a real living as a reporter? The women out there who dream of ascending to the top of the Times masthead— is a dream all that will ever be?
It’s not just a fear limited to women in the newsroom; it’s a concern of women in every room. The sinking feeling that Abramson’s removal had as much to do with her personality as it did with her managerial skills — this perception has every possibility of being inaccurate, but if the Times wants the narrative to play out in their favor, they might want to try issuing a statement that actually and explicitly explains Abramson’s offenses — is all too familiar. How long (a woman in any industry thinks) before I, too, get canned, because I’m not playing nice, or I’m “bossy” or “difficult” or for some other bogus, gendered reason?
Ephron’s full speech is below.