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Some Musings on Feminism, Sexism and Assertive Editors
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2014-05-21 12:15:10
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Jill Abramson
The New York Times’ first female executive editor

A huge controversy has been raging in the last few days in the world of journalism regarding the dismissal at The New York Times, allegedly the best newspaper in the US,of its executive editor Jill Abramson and her replacement with the managing editor Dean Baquet, an African-American who had joined the Times in 1990 as a metropolitan investigative reporter and who was subsequently named national editor five years later. Previously he had won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 1988 at the Chicago Tribune. Mr. Baquet thus becomes the first African-American to serve as The Times’ executive editor.

Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., the publisher of the paper, and the chairman of The New York Times Company, explained the dismissal as “an issue with management in the newsroom.” That simple explanation fooled few people; there seems to be much more than meets the eyes here. In fact the controversy touches on the intricate sensitive issues of sexism, feminism, perhaps even of discrimination and racism in the work place.

But before untangling those issues here are some selected empirical, factual precedents on the controversy: Ms. Abramson, 60, was appointed in 2011. She was the first woman to run the newspaper and her dismissal, after less than three years on the job that should have lasted for another five years, has been perceived with disappointment and a sign of retrogression for the cause of women’s leadership by the other women in the Times’ newsroom. It is worth pointing out too that The Times won eight Pulitzer Prizes under Ms. Abramson, and she co-wrote, with Ms. Mayer, “Strange Justice,” a book about the confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas.

“I’ve loved my run at The Times,” Ms. Abramson said in a prepared statement. “I got to work with the best journalists in the world doing so much stand-up journalism,” while noting her appointment of many senior female editors as one of her signal achievements.

Nevertheless, people in the company have described serious tension in her relationship with Mr. Sulzberger, who was concerned about complaints from employees that she was aggressive, abrasive, polarizing and mercurial. She had also had clashes with Mr. Baquet who had been ambitiously eyeing the job to which Abramson was appointed in 2011 and was frustrated that he had not been selected. This undesirable situation, according to Sulzberger ultimately provoked her dismissal. At that dismissal Mr. Baquet graciously thanked Ms. Abramson, who was not present at the announcement, for teaching him “the value of great ambition” and then added that John Carroll, whom he worked for at The Los Angeles Times, “told me that great editors can also be humane editors.” This is an intriguing statement smacking of a back-handed compliment to which we shall return in our reflections below.

Meanwhile something else has surfaced and it is the issue of equal compensation for equal work. Ms. Abramson found out that her pay was substantially less than the pay of her male predecessor and brought the matter to the attention to Mr. Sulzberger. It seems that her salary was $505,000 while the salary of her predecessor had been $525,000. In effect she was been paid less simply for being a woman. The difference may look like a pittance in comparison but it is the principle of equal pay for equal work that is at stake. So the issue now gets considerably more complicated: to feminism and sexism we need to add inequality and distributive injustice in the work place. Those are the facts.  My, oh my, does it get complicated! Let’s see if we untangle them and sort it all out.

On the surface it looks as if this a proverbial case of the clash of professional ambitions. That’s what Mr. Sulzberger would like us to believe. Remember moreover that statement by Mr. Baquet thanking Ms Abramson for teaching him “the value of great ambition.” What Mr. Baquet wants us to take away from the event of Ms. Abramson’s dismissal is that it was a fair competitive rivalry where he, the winner, won out in the end and Ms. Abramson lost. But is it so simple? After all he is an African-American and she is a woman. Both groups have a deplorable history in the US of suffering prejudice and discrimination on many levels.

Then there is the issue of ambition being a good in itself. But philosophically and logically there is a previous question that needs to be asked and it is this: “ambition for what”? Adolf Hitler was ambitious, and so was Stalin and so was Mao. They were ambitious to conquer and dominate the world by brute ambitious power. One wonders if Mr. Baquet has ever reflected on that conundrum. He claims that one can be both ambitious and humane, but one wonders if he really believes that. Do two wrongs ever make a right?

On the other hand, if we turn the coin around we need to ask to Ms. Abramson: why all the abrasiveness and aggression she showed in the work place? Where did she learn that behavior? Could it be that from the very beginning of her career she got the notion that unless one becomes as aggressive and abrasive as men one runs the danger of not making it in their competitive world? And why would one wish to join such a world? And if that is the case for any woman, then all the pious pronouncements of the feminist movement about offering an alternative to the harsh and inhumane world created by men, of arriving at decisions by mutual consensus and concern for the welfare and the suffering of others, may be just that, pious pronouncements signifying nothing. If what seems to prevail ultimately is fierce, even savage competition. Is that really an alternative or a mere substitution: to an abrasive insensitive man we end up substituting an abrasive woman.

Moreover, we need to ask Mr. Sulzberger, the chairman in chief at the New York Times, why did he surreptitiously assign less pay to Ms. Abramson than what he had granted her male predecessor? What does he think of the distributive justice principle that any worker in any profession or occupation ought to receive equal pay for equal work, no matter her/his gender or race or ethnicity? And, if a man had acted abrasively and rudely in the same work place would he Mr. Sulzberger have found it just as offensive as he found the behavior of Ms. Abramson? Or is a woman expected to be more submissive and courteous than a man? But wait a minute, if she acts that way, then, in the eyes of men, she is a sure loser deserving of inferior conditions.

As I said, it gets pretty messy and confusing, but perhaps we ought to start asking those simple questions. Sometimes the questions turn out to be more important than the answers. All that may be needed after the questions have been asked is to find people with ears to hear what is being asked.   

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Emanuel Paparella2014-05-21 13:48:48
Errata: There is a mistake with the numbers in paragraph 6: they should be S505,000 and 525,000. I apologize for the mistake.

Moreover, it may be worth mentioning a footnote here. A few days ago Ms. Abramson gave a graduation speech at a University and mentioned her firing commiserating with the students who were unemployed and looking for a job like her and then mentioning her father's advise that when people are trying to bring you down, show them what you are made of and suggesting that students follow that paternal advice. That's all well and good but one wonders where was the mother's advice? She was not mentioned. It occurred to me that Jung made a point to stress that to be complete human being men have to cultivate the sensitive feminine in them (at risk of becoming marching Nazis) and women have to cultivate the masculine drive in them (at the risk of becoming clinging violets) since every man has a bit of the feminine and every woman has a bit of the masculine in them. I find it intriguing that Ms. Abramson, for whatever reasons, utterly ignored the mother figure in going back to her youth.

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