The New York Times executive editor is apparently stubborn and snappy. Why must we focus on women's character traits?
Happy newsrooms are all alike. Every unhappy newsroom is unhappy in its own way. The New York Times newsroom is unhappy because its editor is not very nice. Allegedly. This startling revelation comes from a piece posted on Politico yesterday that instantly lost the internet but gained fans at the NYT.
The litany of complaints against Jill Abramson, the Times's executive editor, is indeed jaw-dropping.
She is apparently, on occasion, stubborn and condescending. She snaps at people in meetings (sometimes). Once, she asked why an editor was still in a meeting instead of leaving to fix a problem that had been identified. Worst of all, she had such a strong disagreement with her managing editor over the direction of the news pages that he slapped the wall and walked out. The fact that he was allowed to walk back in again might mean that the tirelessly unpleasant Abramson was having an off day.
Dean Baquet, the managing editor in question, does admit in the piece that walking out was not perhaps the best thing for a senior editor like him to do. The very popular Baquet also admits to a history of wall-punching. Abramson, though apparently non-violent, is judged "impossible", according to the unsourced Politico hatchet job. Impossible, stubborn, condescending, snappy. Yes, it is undoubtedly the case that Jill Abramson is a newspaper editor. Not just any newspaper editor – a female newspaper editor.
The lame nature of the reporting suggests it might be better just to ignore the piece entirely, but it deserves attention, as it fuels an exasperating and wholly sexist narrative about women in power. The souls of the New York Times who found themselves describing Abramson's shortcomings in terms of her manner and mood should be sentenced to read Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In as punishment. As we know, this manifesto for women in the boardroom tells us that the correlation between women being judged 'likeable' and their position in a hierarchy are inversely proportionate.
For a news organization such as Politico to run a piece focused so tightly on Abramson's personality is disappointing. It might have highlighted the fact she has just had the most successful week of her professional life. Her news organization picked up four Pulitzer Prizes, the third highest haul in the Times's history, and the coverage of the Boston bombings was, by wide acknowledgment, exceptionally good, when others were rocky and error-strewn.
For every anonymous source anxious to talk about Abramson's mood swings, and absences, there could have been a counterbalancing one to talk about how Abramson is more present on the news floor than a number of her predecessors. For every person who talks about the exhausting nature of her management style, there is another who might point out that the news operation is the strongest it has been for a long time. You might even find people who think there is more than a whiff of sexism apparent in the building, and the critiques. None of this, however, feeds the story of a woman in charge who tells people what to do in a manner they don't like.
If one redacts 'Jill' from Politico's piece and replaces it with 'Jack', the absurdity and sexism becomes all the more obvious:
"It's frustrating because he is such a smart person. When Jack is on his game, he is one of the smartest people I've ever met," one staffer said. "But he's not a naturally charismatic person — he's not approachable." You see? When was the last time the approachability of a male editor made for copy?
The issue is not what is going on in the New York Times newsroom, but how we choose to talk and write about it. In Sandberg's book, she references the Howard-Heidi experiment, where students rate a description of a person's accomplishments. When the piece is read with the name of the real author attached (Heidi Roizen), she is described as being 'selfish' and not the kind of person you would want to work for. When a false identity 'Howard' was attached to the piece, students rated him as 'likeable'.
What Byers did not cover was the sense that there is widespread and ingrained sexism in journalism, where a woman's character traits are central to a critique of she does the job. Men, who are equally awful in just as many ways, are judged more on output and success. At no point are we asked to stop and consider whether Abramson's abrasive attitude has actually led to the Times becoming a better newspaper, even though the subjective view suggests it has.
Nice people do not necessarily make good editors, whatever their gender. In fact, the opposite might be true. But fewer women will want to even try if the expectations of them in power are so completely different from men in the same jobs and the public judgment so arbitrary and misogynistic.