Recently Ousted Jill Abramson Delivers Commencement Speech

May 19, 2014

Former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson made her first public comments since being fired, when she spoke to graduates of Wake Forest’s class of 2014.

She had agreed to deliver today’s commencement address several months before her very public fallout with the newspaper last week.

Abramson’s abrupt ouster has raised questions about her management style, her compensation and whether gender bias plays a role in any of the controversy.

NPR’s Media Correspondent David Folkenflik joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss Abramson’s speech and the many questions surrounding her firing.


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From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young, it's HERE AND NOW. What would she say and how would she say it? Such anticipation today as Jill Abramson made her first public comments since being unceremoniously fired as executive editor of the New York Times last week. As she delivered the commencement at Wake Forest University in North Carolina when she blasts the Times for pay inequity.

She'd reportedly questioned her pay as compared to her male predecessor. Would she be brusque and pushy? She'd been pained as a monster. Well, neither. In fact, she got a few laughs mentioning, for instance, that students were asking her about her tattoos.

JILL ABRAMSON: One of them asked me, are you going to get that Times T that you have tattooed on your back, removed? Not a chance.

YOUNG: NPR media critic, David Folkenflik, is with us. What'd you think?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Well, look, I thought she was interesting in using the phrase fired. She said that, you know, I was fired, and talked a little bit about what that felt like and the sting and how her sister reminded her of how their father, growing up, had always been more interested in how they bounce back from adversity than in their outright successes. And that the quality of perseverance was important. A nice theme to strike on a commencement address for graduates and their parents, right?

YOUNG: Mm-hmm.

FOLKENFLIK: She didn't deliver any broadsides. It might've been somewhat inappropriate for her to do so. And yet, as one New York Times journalist, who knows them both very well, told me, in recent days, It's been all out-war for the past, you know, 72 hours or so between Jill Abramson and her former boss, the publisher of the New York Times and corporate chairman, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.

So, you know, she took a moment, she talked with real poise about her pride in being a pioneering figure at the times as the first female executive editor. And in the journalism done by the - her former colleagues. And so she took the high road at this moment.

YOUNG: Well, there was one moment where she had just had a little more heat to her voice. She talked about co-authoring a book with Anita Hill, pointing out that Hill had testified in front of an all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary hearing and then again, this little bit of heat.

ABRAMSON: The senators portrayed her as being, as one of her detractors so delicately put it, a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty. She turned that potential humiliation into a great career, teaching at Brandeis University and writing books that tell truth to power. Anita was one of the many people who wrote me last week to say they are proud of me.

YOUNG: She got a little point in there, David.

FOLKENFLIK: She did. I mean she's really made the point, privately, to friends and associates, that she feels that she was treated differently as the executive editor because of her gender. She found out, about three - call it four weeks ago, toward the end of April, that she was being paid significantly - or compensated in total - significantly less then her male predecessor and sometime mentor, Bill Keller.

And also then another managing editor who was essentially subordinate to her. You know, the Times argues, look, we had to change pension rules, she had been there a lot less long then Bill Keller, so her pension was smaller. They were all frozen for executives in 2009 amid the great global financial crisis. And, you know, she wasn't mistreated in any way at all. That in fact she had a very nice compensation.

And the truth of this is, is I think, that the question of gender was one ingredient in a rather toxic stew. Her relations had really frayed with Sulzberger, who's the head of the controlling family, the Sulzberger family, that runs the Times, even though it's publicly traded. And that there was real distrust there.

You know, she hired a lawyer to figure out questions of compensation. If you do that as an executive editor, you're signaling to your publisher, hey, things are pretty tense and pretty distrustful right now. And I think gender is one component of a very tough, tough relationship.

YOUNG: Well, David, we just have a couple seconds. So I'm going to have to ask you, yes or no. Do you think one of the reasons that maybe she was so calm today, do you think there are some lawsuits on the horizon?

FOLKENFLIK: Not my sense. It's my understanding that there's some severance on agreement and arrangement.

YOUNG: Mm hmm.

FOLKENFLIK: But she seemed to reach...

YOUNG: Yeah.

FOLKENFLIK: ...a kind of public serenity there.

YOUNG: David Folkenflik, NPR's media correspondent, HERE AND NOW.

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