Politics & Media
May 19, 2014, 02:23PM

Flooding the Zone

The New York Times PR disaster is of little concern to most Americans.

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There’s just one thing you need to know about Jill Abramson’s dismissal from The New York Times: it doesn’t matter.

Despite the raucous carnival of news articles, anguished or celebratory blog entries, Tweets, punditry and Facebook ruminations about NYT publisher Arthur Sulzberger’s motives for banishing the former executive editor—I wonder when Sulzberger will be dubbed “Fredo” in a headline—the struggling newspaper will carry on, every day (for now) and readers won’t notice any difference in its left-of-center content. What’s more, the vast majority of Americans, including Times readers, couldn’t care less. Had Abramson been replaced by an ambitious, tech-savvy person who hadn’t marked his or her 40th birthday, instead of the status quo elevation of 57-year-old Dean Baquet, well, that would be interesting, even stunning for an institution that still—still!—revels in its dated appellation “the paper of record.”

Typical of the overwrought coverage came from the Times’ own David Carr on May 19—his second story about the Abramson knockout—and it was not one of Carr’s finer moments, studded with folksy anecdotes and odd references to the heroes and villains by their first names. He wrote: “When [Sulzberger] stood up at a hastily called meeting in the soaring open newsroom where we usually gather to celebrate the Pulitzers and said that Jill was out, we all looked at one another. How did our workplace suddenly become a particularly bloody episode of Game of Thrones?” Along the way, Carr took time to define, for the rubes, one of Jill’s favorite words—tsoris—and described the scene as “surreal.” Had blood actually been spilled it would’ve been worthy of a story, but a shuffling of the masthead? Goodness, the narcissism continues apace at the Times, even in its diminished stature.

And the evocation of employees celebrating the Times’ regular haul of Pulitzers was enough to make me squeamish as well. Hasn’t it been established by now that the Pulitzer Prizes are Exhibit A of the elite media congratulating itself, handing out awards on a rotating basis (with an oddball paper thrown in every year for the sake of appearance), a ritual that reminds me of authors blurbing each others’ books. Just as the Nobel Peace Prize was forever soiled when Arafat was honored in 1994 (and, to a lesser extent, President Obama picking up the hardware before completing even a year in his first term), the Pulitzers and other similar ceremonies are close to bankrupt.

Naturally, the specter of sexism was bandied about when Abramson’s firing became public. Any port in a tidal wave, I guess, but even if women are treated unfairly at the paper—which would elicit guffaws from non-Times believers, as the daily resembles the atrocious Salon and Daily Kos websites in its coverage of that issue—I’ve yet to read about ladies picketing the company’s building. There was also the hysteria about Abramson’s compensation lagging behind her predecessor Bill Keller—breathlessly reported by The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta, the 72-year-old media analyst: notice a pattern here, older pre-internet journalists writing about each other, absolutely clueless that none of this matters to people born after 1980?—which strikes me as rather thin as well. First, Abramson, despite her very biased slant on the news, was a veteran reporter—a dogged one, we’re led to believe, smears of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas notwithstanding—and it’s inconceivable that when offered the executive editor position she had no idea of the salary range. That’s the sort of thing, especially in higher echelons at a newspaper, that you pick up on. And even if she didn’t know, one assumes she hired a lawyer to review her contract and that he or she would’ve found out Keller’s salary and perks. It’s far more likely that Abramson, who famously described The New York Times as her “religion” (as if religion in general needs another whack in the balls) didn’t really care: getting paid in mid-six figures isn’t bupkis, after all, and she wanted the job.

I didn’t agree with all of Ira Stoll’s mostly fine account of this extreme media-covers-media story—he wobbled on the pay issue, I think—but his sixth bulleted point was insightful. He wrote: “The Times is in trouble. If the business were a booming success, [Abramson’s pink slip] would not have happened. But the paper is struggling to adapt to a changing media environment. Money for things others than severance packages of high-ranking women executives who can’t get along with Arthur Sulzberger Jr. (see the case of Janet Robinson) is tight. So perceived management faults are magnified more than they would be in a growing business with plenty of money to paper over minor grievances.”

The last wrinkle in this over-reported story that’s of note is the memo about the Times’ digital future written by Arthur Gregg Sulzberger—thirtysomething son of Fredo—that is unequivocal in its belief that the paper is way behind the curve. Too little, too late, would be my guess: when the Times is outstripped by the ludicrous site BuzzFeed for views, that’s trouble. When was the last time you went to the Times’ homepage for its stories? I can’t remember when I did, relying instead on links from Real Clear Politics, Twitter or Drudge. I’m still a print subscriber, but only scan the headlines in the morning; with limited time, The Wall Street Journal takes precedence. As a consequence I read far less of the Times than even six years ago, ridding myself of a habit I began as an eight-year-old in 1963. As for Millennials, an audience the Times has to conquer to stave off, for now at least, marginal status, good luck in finding even the well-educated and curious young men and women who actually read the Times—except, perhaps, to make fun of articles about Brooklyn that another website lampoons—with any regularity.

—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER1955

  • Thank you Russ for stating what I've been thinking!!! I've no idea why this fact-free story is supposed to interest me. Editor at dying publication is fired. Furthermore, don't understand why any graduating student would want to hear about this all-around failure (editor, publication, P.R. etc.) as they enter the job market.

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  • Slam dunk as usual.

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  • The NYT reports the news. Fewer institutions are doing that now, yet the function is still as important as ever. So what happens to one of the last giant organizations dedicated to news reporting certainly is important. And it's also important that the NYT apparently paid Abramson less than her male counterparts thru most of her career there. At one point it appears she was making less than a guy who ranked under her. Whether she knew about this is an interesting and relevant point that is as yet unsettled. But what's more important, much more important, is whether the Times did it. So far they've been careful not to deny the charge.

  • No one outside of New York (and NYT readers) really cares. I certainly do not and I've been asking myself why firing a manager of a newspaper matters? Other than the media feeding on their own, that is. Every neighborhood and city is their own little world. The problem is when those people think their own little world is just like everywhere else. I love to visit NYC - it has a great energy and most of the people I've met are great people. They do, however, have a tendency to think that how goes New York City, goes the rest of the country.

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  • I'm glad you have your feminism hat on, CT. But I reiterate that Abramson wanted the job; she didn't have to take it. I agree that NYT still spends an enormous amount of $$$ on news coverage, to their credit, whether or not you agree with the paper's point of view, which is evident not only on the opinion pages but the front page as well. But do you really think the paper will change now that Baquet rather than Abramson is executive editor? I don't, and this is why the absurd amount of coverage over what was a personnel change is nuts. The real question is how long the Times can survive, financially, without cutting its overhead and appealing to younger readers.

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  • Here's how I figure it: in any underpayment case the victim had to have taken the job -- otherwise he/she couldn't have been underpaid. From the published facts it looks the NYT paid Abramson less than the guys over and over, as a consistent thing. This is at a rich and powerful institution that presumes to set the tone for establishment America. Like a lot of thumbsuckers have asked, what does this tell women who want to move up? If the great & good NYT is going to do a Lilly Ledbetter, then how many other places are doing the same? Seems like a good question, and it's one that a lot of the ouster coverage has focused on. As to whether Baquet's leadership will make a difference, it beats me but I haven't seen so much attention to that, it's been the feminist angle.

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  • Re: "...the NYT apparently paid Abramson less than her male counterparts thru most of her career there." Sulzberger disputed this more than once. But I understand why ideological feminists ignore him and continue promoting Abramson as a victim of sexism. It's good for the cause. In its current dire economic straits, why hasn't the NYT replaced all the men with women, if as you appear to think, it can get away with paying women less? Do you think the paper keeps men on and pays them more simply because it's sexist? Test its sexism: ask Sulzberger how much his paper has donated to women's breast-cancer and heart-disease research, and how much to research of prostate cancer and heart disease of men, who as a group incur the disease ten years earlier and die of it at a much higher rate at every age. This may be a rude awakening: “The Doctrinaire Institute for Women's Policy Research: A Comprehensive Look at Gender Equality” http://malemattersusa.wordpress.com/2012/02/16/the-doctrinaire-institute-for-womens-policy-research/ The following may be the real reason the feminist NY Times had the courage to jettison the feminist Jill Abramson. The Gray Lady's chieftains understandably didn't want the reason disclosed, but if it were disclosed, they calculated that even the feminist community would say they did the right thing getting rid of Abramson. According to The Wrap, Abramson said the following -- which she wouldn't dare say or allow to be said in The Times editorials -- when interviewed by Al Jazeera America as recently as January 2014: “I would say [the Obama Administration] is the most secretive White House that I have ever been involved in covering, and that includes — I spent 22 years of my career in Washington and covered presidents from President Reagan on up through now, and I was Washington bureau chief of the Times during George W. Bush's first term.” http://www.thewrap.com/jill-abramson-slams-obama-jill-abramson-secretive-white-house-ever/ As I said, it's understandable, at a time when the Obama Administration is besot with scandals, that the NY Times didn't want to bring attention to Abramason's ardent declaration about the Obama White House being the "most secretive" Abramson has ever been involved in covering. Abramason, an influential spokesperson for the NY Times, should have known that her comments would deeply, deeply anger the Gray Lady's managers, who looked upon Obama with more reverence than due our Creator. I suspect the managers were merely waiting for any excuse to get rid of her.

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