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Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. holds up four fingers to indicate the four Pulitzer Prizes won by the New York Times, as winners for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize are announced at The New York Times newsroom in New York April 15, 2013. Also pictured are (from L-R): CEO Mark Thompson, Sulzberger, Assistant Managing Editor Susan Chira, Editorial Page Editor Andrew Rosenthal (obscured by Chira) and Executive Editor Jill Abramson. REUTERS/Ruth Fremson/Pool (UNITED STATES - Tags: MEDIA SOCIETY) - RTXYN1U
Jill Abramson applauds as Arthur Sulzberger Jr. holds up four fingers to indicate the four Pulitzer Prizes won by the New York Times in 2013.
The controversy over what led to the abrupt firing of Jill Abramson as executive editor at the New York Times continues, and nothing the newspaper's publisher or spokespeople have said has diminished the strong sense that sexism played a part. There are two major components to this. If Abramson pushing executives on a pay disparity between herself and her male predecessor played a part in her firing, that's incredibly damning. But it's also damning in the context of the stated reason for her firing being management issues with a strong—and gendered—personality component.

Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. has insisted that "It is simply not true that Jill’s compensation was significantly less than her predecessors," but Ken Auletta has figures showing that, yes, Abramson's salary was lower than male predecessors or successors more than once in her career. Sulzberger appears to be hanging his case on the less directly comparable question of total compensation; as Auletta points out, though, even if we had more information, there would be uncertainties involved: "For instance, did Abramson’s compensation pass Keller’s because the Times’ stock price rose? Because her bonuses came in up years and his in down years?" But as important a question as "did the Times pay Abramson less than comparable men" is, a more important question is "did the Times fire Abramson in part for asking about pay issues?" And here too the Times' official position raises questions:

Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Times, argued that there was no real compensation gap, but conceded to me that “this incident was a contributing factor” to the firing of Abramson, because “it was part of a pattern.” (Update: Murphy wrote to me after this post went up to dispute this. Her quote is accurate and in context, as I’ve confirmed in my notes. However, she now e-mails: “I said to you that the issue of bringing a lawyer in was part of a pattern that caused frustration. I NEVER said that it was part of a pattern that led to her firing because that is just not true.”)
Okay ... so bringing in a lawyer to ask about pay disparities was part of the pattern that caused frustration, and the frustration was clearly what led to the firing, but we're supposed to conclude the asking about pay was not what led to the firing? Right. But about that frustration. We're told that Abramson was difficult, and that may well be true. Was she treated as other difficult New York Times editors who were men, though? The case of Howell Raines is instructive. Rebecca Traister writes:
The last editor to be forced out by the Times, Howell Raines, was someone who, like Abramson, did not always enjoy a fuzzy reputation within the newsroom. “Howell ruled by fear,” was how one source described his tenure in 2003. Raines was forced out after it was discovered that one of his reporter protégées, Jayson Blair, had been fabricating stories. But even in the midst of the tumult over Blair, Sulzberger remained affectionate toward Raines, at one point handing him a stuffed moose. When Raines finally left the paper, it was with an address to the staff; his wife was present.
Abramson, by contrast, was dumped unceremoniously, in a way that almost looks calculated to humiliate her. Her personality and management style had been the subject of a great deal of scrutiny, with Sulzberger clearly thinking his actions are justified because Jill Abramson is difficult. Ann Friedman sums up the Raines-Abramson contrast: "It took a major plagiarism scandal to get Sulzberger to notice that former executive editor Howell Raines was widely reviled in the newsroom, but Sulzberger was on high alert about Abramson’s emotional-approval ratings from the very start."

So there you have it. Arthur Sulzberger Jr. was fine with a difficult man as executive editor, but not with a difficult woman. The salary of the first woman appointed executive editor of the Times was lower than that of her male predecessor, just as her salary had been lower than other men at her level at other points in her career with the paper, and she was fired shortly after hiring a lawyer to ask about that. But it's not that she was fired because she hired a lawyer—it's just that hiring a lawyer was part of the pattern of difficult behavior that was already frustrating Sulzberger, and it's the frustration, not the equal pay ask, that led him to fire her without the kindness he offered Howell Raines. If this was all coming from an organization with no experience with words or public relations, it would be implausible enough. Coming from the Times, it's an embarrassment.

Originally posted to Daily Kos Labor on Fri May 16, 2014 at 07:32 AM PDT.

Also republished by Daily Kos.

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