Thursday, May 15, 2014

Yes, Jill Abramson's firing had everything to do with gender

Earlier this year, Bill Keller, former executive editor of the New York Times, was not happy with the reception given to his wife's story in the Guardian about a cancer patient. Emma Keller's story looked at the "ethics of tweeting a terminal illness" and focused attention on Lisa Bonchek Adams, a woman tweeting and blogging about living with Stage IV breast cancer. Emma's post was so polarizing that the Guardian took it down (here's a cached version.)

A couple days after Emma Keller published her story about Lisa Bonchek Adams, Bill Keller wrote a piece about Adams as well. It was called "Heroic Measures" and it essentially called on Lisa Adams to shut up and die already. Here's how he opened the essay:
LISA BONCHEK ADAMS has spent the last seven years in a fierce and very public cage fight with death. Since a mammogram detected the first toxic seeds of cancer in her left breast when she was 37, she has blogged and tweeted copiously about her contest with the advancing disease. She has tweeted through morphine haze and radiation burn. Even by contemporary standards of social-media self-disclosure, she is a phenomenon. (Last week she tweeted her 165,000th tweet.) A rapt audience of several thousand follows her unsparing narrative of mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation, biopsies and scans, pumps and drains and catheters, grueling drug trials and grim side effects, along with her posts on how to tell the children, potshots at the breast cancer lobby, poetry and resolute calls to “persevere.”
Keller's essay unfortunately has some factual errors - I guess he's perhaps become a careless reporter (like so many reporters these days!) Keller misreports the number of children Adams has (he said two; she has three). He also misrepresents Adams' condition. Adams does not feel she is in a "cage fight with death." She feels she is an example of living with cancer - and she's seeking to prolong the time she has to spend with her very small children. Keller also seems unable to comprehend why/how Adams has amassed this "rapt audience of several thousand" people. And he thinks her efforts to persevere are wasteful and wrong:
"In October 2012 I wrote about my father-in-law’s death from cancer in a British hospital. There, more routinely than in the United States, patients are offered the option of being unplugged from everything except pain killers and allowed to slip peacefully from life. His death seemed to me a humane and honorable alternative to the frantic medical trench warfare that often makes an expensive misery of death in America."
In Keller's mind, instead of engaging in that "medical trench warfare," Adams should choose as his father-in-law chose - to die, rather than seek to prolong life (because young mothers and very old men diagnosed with cancer should always choose death so as not to be a drain on the healthcare system).

Here's how Keller ends his essay:

"Her digital presence is no doubt a comfort to many of her followers. On the other hand, as cancer experts I consulted pointed out, Adams is the standard-bearer for an approach to cancer that honors the warrior, that may raise false hopes, and that, implicitly, seems to peg patients like my father-in-law as failures.

"Steven Goodman, an associate dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine, said he cringes at the combat metaphor, because it suggests that those who choose not to spend their final days in battle, using every weapon in the high-tech medical arsenal, lack character or willpower.

“'I’m the last person to second-guess what she did,' Goodman told me, after perusing Adams’s blog. 'I’m sure it has brought meaning, a deserved sense of accomplishment. But it shouldn’t be unduly praised. Equal praise is due to those who accept an inevitable fate with grace and courage.'”
And that, as we say, is that. Both Kellers feel that Lisa Adams needs to accept her fate (death at a young age) with grace, rather than do what she can to attempt to halt the cancer in her body.

I write about Keller's "Heroic Measures" essay after reading about Arthur Sulzberger's dismissal of Keller's successor, Jill Abramson. Keller's essay drips with condescension and inaccuracies. One can perhaps infer that as a boss, as a manager, he would likely be assertive, brusque and a bit pushy. When he left that position in 2010, he was replaced by Abramson, the first woman named as executive editor of the New York Times.

Like Bill Keller, Jill Abramson is considered to be assertive, brusque and pushy. Once, after an unpleasant meeting with her boss, she left the meeting so enraged that she hit a wall and left the office for the rest of the day. And so her boss had to fire her yesterday...


Oh wait. That wasn't Jill who hit a wall after an unpleasant meeting. That was Dean Baquet, the guy who reported to her - AND the guy who will now replace her as executive editor. Because Jill Abramson DID get fired yesterday.

Wall-slamming was Baquet's thing, not Abramson's. According to a snarky Politico story from a year ago - a story focused on how brusque and mean and pushy Abramson was - Baquet had had it with Abramson, and thus was pushed to violence:
"One Monday morning in April, Jill Abramson called Dean Baquet into her office to complain. The executive editor of The New York Times was upset about the paper’s recent news coverage — she felt it wasn’t “buzzy” enough, a source there said — and placed blame on Baquet, her managing editor. A debate ensued, which gave way to an argument.
Minutes later, Baquet burst out of Abramson’s office, slammed his hand against a wall and stormed out of the newsroom. He would be gone for the rest of the day, absent from the editors’ daily 4 p.m. meeting, at which he is a fixture."
The point of the Politico story was to show how awful Abramson was to work for. And they had some info from anonymous sources on how difficult she was as a boss. And then I think, really - was the guy who wants the mom with breast cancer to shut up and die really so good to work for? Was he warm and cuddly and not prone to being "brusque"? Somehow I doubt it. But he got to retire on his own terms.

And when I read about the second-in-command "bursting out" of his boss's office in a rage, I see a man with a bit of an anger-management problem. In many workplaces, hitting a wall and storming out of work would be considered alarming ways to respond to your boss.

But because the boss was a woman, Baquet felt emboldened to do so. Would he have stormed out of a meeting with Bill Keller? Somehow I doubt it. And if he had, I doubt the Politico story would make him the sympathetic character.

I talk about Abramson's "brusque" quality because that's the New York Times has said is the reason for Abramson's departure. From their story on Wednesday:
"Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., the publisher of the paper and the chairman of The New York Times Company, told a stunned newsroom that had been quickly assembled that he had made the decision because of 'an issue with management in the newsroom.' 
"Ms. Abramson, 60, had been in the job only since September 2011. But people in the company briefed on the situation described serious tension in her relationship with Mr. Sulzberger, who was concerned about complaints from employees that she was polarizing and mercurial. She had also had clashes with Mr. Baquet."
 She was polarizing and mercurial. She had also had clashes with Mr. Baquet..."

They put out a newspaper - it seems inevitable that clashes would occur on occasion.

Let's take a minute to look at what Abramson DID do as executive editor - other than fight with her second-in-command. According to Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times' public editor, Abramson can claim a number of accomplishments. Under her leadership, share price went up; the paper won eight Pulitzers; there was no scandal under her watch; she stood up for her reporters (and opposed certain business practices like "native advertising" - which did not make her popular with the business side)

And then there is the issue of compensation.  But I'll leave that for Ken Auletta to explain... it's a great read!

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