Here is something that’s been lost in the coverage of The New York Times’s abrupt, humiliating firing of Jill Abramson: in most of her publicly aired conflicts with publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and CEO Mark Thompson about the future of the institution, she was clearly in the right.
There are two intertwining narratives of Abramson’s downfall, and both probably have some truth to them. The story that’s gotten the most attention, of course, is about sexism. “Several weeks ago, I’m told, Abramson discovered that her pay and her pension benefits as both executive editor and, before that, as managing editor were considerably less than the pay and pension benefits of Bill Keller, the male editor whom she replaced in both jobs,” Ken Auletta reported in The New Yorker. “’She confronted the top brass,’ one close associate said, and this may have fed into the management’s narrative that she was ‘pushy,’ a characterization that, for many, has an inescapably gendered aspect.”
The Times denies this, but unless it’s disproven, women across the country have reason to find it chilling. If one of the most powerful women in the world, helming an organization that champions equal pay, might have been punished for advocating for herself, what hope is there for the rest of us?
But if Abramson’s demise is about gender, it’s also about newsroom values—and here, the implications are almost as troubling. At NYMag.com, Gabriel Sherman describes how she clashed with Thompson over native advertising or ads designed to look like editorial content. He writes about how she resisted Thompson’s push for a greater emphasis on online video, and about how she enraged him by sending a journalist to investigate his role in the unfolding Jimmy Savile sex abuse scandal at the BBC, which he led before going to the Times. In all of these conflicts, she was right, and in two of them, she was defending fundamental journalist principles.
The first is the most clear-cut. Native advertising may be becoming increasingly common online, but that doesn’t make it less of a journalistic violation. It is, after all, explicitly designed to fool readers—to make them think they are reading not an ad but a dispatch from a trusted news organization. It’s frankly shocking that the Times was even considering it, much less that resistance to it was a black mark against a woman tasked with preserving the integrity of the newsroom.
There’s no ethical problem with pouring resources into video, but it’s still not a good idea. There is, in fact, something a little desperate about print organizations rushing into a field that doesn’t play to their strengths. Text is simply a better medium for delivering the news, which is why even TV news websites like CNN and MSNBC are so text-heavy. Those newspapers that have invested heavily in video have little to show for it. Consider The Washington Post’s Post TV, which Laura Bennet wrote about in The New Republic last year, describing it as one of the paper’s “biggest expansion investments in the last decade.”