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'New York Times' Upheaval: Is This A Barack Vs. Hillary Moment?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're going to spend a good chunk of the rest of the day's program talking about issues in the media that all happen to bubble up at the same time. Later, we'll talk about why the new fall season just got more colorful. We'll hear about one show that puts an Asian-American family front and center in a network sitcom for the first time in 20 years.

But first, we're going to talk about a story involving one of the giants in the news business - The New York Times. It has become a front-page issue itself. On Wednesday, Jill Abramson, the first woman to serve as executive editor of The New York Times, was dismissed after just two and a half years on the job. That set off a firestorm of counter narratives, as we like to stay in the media.

One narrative was that Abramson was abrasive and difficult to work with and had lost the confidence of her newsroom. The other was that Times management was critical of her for behavior that is not only tolerated but even expected of male leaders, and oh, by the way, was paying her significantly less than the man who held the job before her. The Times denies this strongly. Somewhere buried in the back of this story is also the fact that Dean Baquet, who succeeds Abramson as executive editor, is the first African-American in that job, making history of his own.

So we wanted to talk about all of this and what it means. So we've got two people with a very good vantage point on this. Veteran journalist Susan Glasser is the editor of Politico Magazine. And she wrote about this in the article called "Editing While Female." Susan, welcome. Thanks for coming.

SUSAN GLASSER: Thank you so much for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Also with us is Richard Prince who writes Journal-isms. It's an online publication about diversity in the media. He's here in our studios here. Richard, thank you so much for joining us once again.

RICHARD PRINCE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, Susan, you wrote - seems like - I would say it's a very tough piece. I don't know if you agree with my characterization. I think it's a very tough piece. And you said it's a piece that you did not want to write but you felt you had to because of experiences that you have had and that you've noticed that other top women editors have had. Could you tell us a bit more about what conclusion you came to?

GLASSER: Well, I think my point was we don't need to litigate. We don't know what really happened inside, you know, Jill Abramson's obviously dysfunctional relationship with her colleagues at the top of The New York Times. It's - my view of that is sort of like a divorce or - you know, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. And it's very hard for us to really know what happened there.

But that if you pull back a bit and you look at the extraordinary commonality of experience - bad experience that many women have had at the rarefied heir at the top of these news organizations - you know, let's be real. We've got a problem. There are basically no women now running any major news organization with a small, small handful of exceptions. And how is that possible in 2014?

My view - and this is based in part on my own experience as the short-lived editor of National News at The Washington Post - is that there is a serious problem. That there is a gender bias that is really internalized inside of us that really strongly plays against women editors who are often judged, typecast for behavior that has been the ingredient of success for male editors.

MARTIN: You wrote in the piece - I'm struck - what I'm struck by is the depressing circularity of a whole conversation. You don't have to pronounce judgment on the merits of Abramson's tenure to be dismayed by the awful sameness of the charges that are hurled by those anonymous newsroom sources. The women are always labeled smart, but difficult, unapproachable and intimidating. And you say it's not a question of their journalistic merits but of their suitability - their personality. And so do you feel it's an issue where women journalists are not given the same opportunity to mess up in these jobs as men are or to find their sea legs, as it were? What do you think?

GLASSER: Well, I think that's absolutely a part of it. Remember, we're talking about the very, very small handful who decide to stick with it as it is and who rise to the top of these organizations in the first place, which is basically, as you know all too well, it's so few. It's really shocking.

If you told me that in college that we'd be where we are today with the small number of women in leadership positions to begin with in these organizations, I wouldn't have believed you. I would have been shocked. But having experienced it firsthand myself, I basically think every bit of experience that women have leads them to say no way am I going to subject myself to that horrible treatment. And I'm really worried. I look around here in the Politico newsroom at all these wonderful, smart young women and that's part of what drove me in the end to speak out - is the feeling that, you know, this is really - something has got to change.

I was in Paris the weekend before all this happened, very coincidentally at a conference. My old friend Natalie Nougayrede had become the editor-in-chief of Le Monde. She was also forced out of her job on the very same day within hours of Jill Abramson. And again, that's part of what caused me to speak out. You could not find two women who have more different temperaments than Natalie Nougayrede and Jill Abramson, both of whom I know and respect very much as journalists. And yet they were castigated and judged in the same terms.

The news coverage about them use many of the exact same epithets hurled by the same kind of anonymous newsroom sources who show up in stories like that. And again, I think that's what should cause people really to stop and think about this and think about our assumptions about women. And how is it that two people - and many others besides -could be labeled with such identical terms, who are such different people?

MARTIN: Richard, let's hear about this and how it's being reported in your space because under other circumstances, you have to believe that the rise of the first African-American executive editor for the New York Times would have been an enormous story. And it seems to have been subsumed under this other issue. You cover diversity both in the gender realm and also racial and ethnic and religious. So tell me how you respond to this story.

PRINCE: Well, I think that we're in grave danger here of universalizing one person's experience. And I've seen this sometimes with African-Americans as well as women. Jill Abramson does not represent all women. I worked in the Gannett Company, for example, where Al Neuharth was very strong on having women leaders because he saw what happened to his mother. And so I worked around many women editors. I've also had African-American editors. And some were good. Some were not so good. We're talking about individuals here with their own personalities, their own quirks, their own people skills, their own management styles. And I think we're in danger here of, as I said, universalizing these experiences. It's not that you're a woman or an African-American, it's how you deal with those kinds of things. And some are better at it than others.

MARTIN: But I have to ask you though, do you - people have felt at times that, for example, you know, Barack Obama is not in the news business obviously, but as a public figure, that he's been subjected to a certain people imprinting certain things on him that they would not on a person of a different demographic. And so I just, you know, just have to ask. Is it your view that, is this - do think that this is becoming kind of a Barack versus Hillary kind of issue, where it's like the rise of a person of color is somehow seen to reflect on white women in the business or something? Like it's a zero-sum situation? Or how do you -

PRINCE: Well, sometimes - yeah, that's true. It can be seen that way.

MARTIN: What is most of your - what are most of your correspondents in your - telling you? You have had an interesting, very lively discussion on your site about this. What are people saying to you?

PRINCE: Well, some people are talking about the issue of white women versus black men or black people in general. They're talking about the fact that when we talk about women in the situation, we're not really talking about black women. I don't know of any black women who have been promoted at the New York Times to any of these department heads - positions under Jill Abramson's tenure. And that's being mentioned. I think that people are saying that they sort of resent Jill Abramson's case being made into an issue of pay for all women, when actually this is one case, with one person's personality, with one person's management style. And that's what I'm hearing.

MARTIN: Is that in part, you think, that they feel that this is overshadowing Dean Baquet's accomplishments, who was a Pulitzer Prize winner...

PRINCE: Right.

MARTIN: ...And previously led another major American newspaper, the Los Angeles Times.

PRINCE: That's true.

MARTIN: Is that part of it? Is it kind of - let's just be clear. Is it racial defensiveness in part, you think, or a sense of hurt feelings on his behalf, do you think?

PRINCE: No, I don't think people - actually, people are not talking about Dean Baquet very much. They're talking about Jill and they're talking about the New York Times and how this whole issue has been hijacked.

MARTIN: Well, one person's hijacking is another person's truth. So I don't know.

PRINCE: Well, I mean, that's what they're saying. That's what they're saying. That's what they're saying. Yeah.

MARTIN: OK. So as we only have about a minute left - so can I ask you what - tell me whatever you want to as a final thought. I'm interested in what reaction you're getting to the piece and whether you feel that any new conversations are being opened up about this.

GLASSER: Well, thank you so much. I've been amazed and overwhelmed by the overwhelmingly supportive reaction that's come from the piece. And I think it's because when we have a national conversation around this, it resonates with people. They connect with their own lives, their own experiences. And again, they don't know the specifics of what happened inside the New York Times. And that part of it is important but relevant obviously much more so to a small number of people who work inside the New York Times. And that was not the purpose of me writing this piece. I have to say, I believe that we do have a crisis of women leadership in the country. And one thing that -

MARTIN: I'm sorry Susan. We're out of time, apologies for that. And thank you so much for joining us. I apologize. Susan Glasser is editor of Politico Magazine. She was with us from her offices in Virginia. Richard Prince writes the Journal-isms column on diversity in the media. He was with us in Washington, D.C. Thank you both. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.