Let me be perfectly clear when it comes to ousted New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson: She has, on some occasions I have spent time with her, scared the bejesus out of me.

That said, it was in a very good way.

I am not sure whether it was her unusually focused stare, which can be unsettling. Or her supernatural ability to be completely still when listening to you, which can be discomforting in that it is not a stance that would put anyone at ease. Or even her bone-dry wit, which can be sharp but in a manner that is, to my mind, brilliant.

That steel-backed ability to communicate an aura of toughness and command has never been a minus to me, and, I would assume, not at the pinnacle of American journalism where the Times has long reigned. This is the big leagues, right, where there is no crying in baseball.

In any case, for those who know me, for someone to make me even slightly perturbed is no mean feat. Even the fearsome dragon of a media mogul Rupert Murdoch never much frightened me as I thought he might on the many times we have met (this is stupid of me, I know).

In fact, he apparently called me — although I don’t believe much in this dopey report — “crazy scary.”

Crazy and scary, all at once!

Crazy and scary, all at once!

Let’s also be clear, since too many people — both men and women — don’t seem to be able to grok this too well, despite it being obviously obvious: Phrases like “crazy scary” are often meant to send women quickly back behind the be-nice-ladies line and tap into the societal pressure for females to tamp down their confidence or package it in a more attractive way.

Other words that are also used: “Loud-mouthed.” “Jarring.” “Strident.” “Shrill.” “Overbearing.” “Bossy.” “Bitchy.” And, of course, “pushy” — which is in many ways the worst of them, as it is defined thusly: “Excessively or unpleasantly self-assertive or ambitious.”

That is the word that has now been stuck like glue to Abramson, who was very famously fired last week by publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr.

Sulzberger, who initially got his job by being born — well, let’s just say it, shall we? — Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., and Abramson, as reported by New Yorker writer Ken Auletta, “had a fraught relationship almost from the start of her tenure as executive editor, nearly three years ago.” (By the way, he picked her.)

According to Auletta, who has copiously chronicled the ups and downs of the Times over the years, it was a mutual dislike: “He saw her as difficult, high-handed, and lacking in finesse in her management of people at the paper. She, in turn, was increasingly resentful of his intrusions into her command of editorial operations, and of his increasingly close relationship with Mark Thompson, the company’s CEO, who came from England and the BBC to run the business side.”

In Auletta’s telling, the final straws were Abramson’s hiring of a lawyer over disparate pay issues — an increasingly hot-button issue everywhere — and also her attempted effort to snag a second managing editor for digital without clearing it first with Managing Editor Dean Baquet. While emails quoted by Auletta seem to indicate that Thompson was on board with that hire, the idea of Abramson not consulting a subordinate properly was apparently a pushy bridge too far for the Timesmen.

Baquet, an apparently nice-guy character in this, turned around and dissed Abramson in a dinner with Sulzberger, calling her “belligerent” (witchy woman alert!), in what sounds like an Upper West Side version of the Red Wedding from “Game of Thrones.”

That's gotta hurt.

That’s gotta hurt.

(Is it just me or can you relate almost everything these days to “Games of Thrones”? Well played, HBO!)

While — as Auletta correctly notes — “abrasiveness has never been a firing offense at the Times,” Abramson’s toughness seems to be the central reason that Sulzberger decided to dispense with her, first by asking her to do the nice-girl thing and resign and, when she refused, by firing her in perhaps the most awesome example of PR gone very, very bad.

Sulzberger made it quantumly worse with a pair of tone-deaf memos, huffing and puffing in an attempt to convince whoever he needs to like him lots that he was justified in his actions.

(Side note: This is pretty much a moot point since his family completely controls the Times company. Another observation: Could you ever imagine Murdoch apologizing for one of his periodic axings of execs? You can almost hear him: “Crikey, mate — That’s right, I killed him/her dead and tweeted about it too, so sod off!”)

“The reason — the only reason — for that decision was concerns I had about some aspects of Jill’s management of our newsroom, which I had previously made clear to her, both face-to-face and in my annual assessment,” wrote Sulzberger in his first memo.

And in the second over the weekend — you kind of want to say at this point, hush up, Arthur, it’s a horrible mess you are making much worse by all this desperate ’splaining, which is getting pilloried on Twitter — he got more specific:

“During her tenure, I heard repeatedly from her newsroom colleagues, women and men, about a series of issues, including arbitrary decision-making, a failure to consult and bring colleagues with her, inadequate communication and the public mistreatment of colleagues. I discussed these issues with Jill herself several times and warned her that, unless they were addressed, she risked losing the trust of both masthead and newsroom. She acknowledged that there were issues and agreed to try to overcome them. We all wanted her to succeed. It became clear, however, that the gap was too big to bridge and ultimately I concluded that she had lost the support of her masthead colleagues and could not win it back.”

Let me see if I can say it more simply than Sulzberger: She was a real pain in my ass and so she had to go.

I can relate, to say the least. As one of the few top editors in tech journalism who is a woman and, even from my many years of reporting before that, I cannot tell you the number of times that I have been called a pain in the ass for my aggressive manner. Silly me, but that kind of tonality is exactly what makes for a successful journalist — you know, afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted — and what is more often than not needed in the sometimes rough-and-tumble world of media.

This characterization of me manifested all the time, and nearly every woman in the newsroom has a similar story. Asking for a lot and being firm about it shifts quickly into “you don’t have to be so rude,” although yes, I do. Make a definite assertion about a story or a project that is different from others in the group — you know, just to actually get new ideas out there — and you’re not a team player, although I had no idea work was a soccer game. Tell someone what you honestly think of them without a lot of pretty icing, and then you are a class-A, well, you know that word.

This has been a common theme in the coverage of the Abramson debacle — how different behavioral standards are applied to men and women, how strongly confident women get turned into waspish shrews, while men become commanding figures of authority. That’s the cliché, of course, but it does not make it any less true.

And there are men, men everywhere in positions of true power (by the way, of those I have met, most have been kind and diligent and talented), which makes you long for some role models who do not have a Y chromosome. That’s part of what attracted me to create my own media organization with Walt Mossberg (a model man, as far as I am concerned), so that other women and also men could see another strong-minded, outspoken woman in a position of power who was, as they say, kicking ass and taking names.

The one and only Ben Bradlee

The one and only Ben Bradlee

I actually learned that skill when I was a really young reporter at the Washington Post, when the legendary Ben Bradlee still held sway over the newsroom. He was every single fantastic thing people think of him as: Tough, smart, profane, funny, difficult and, yes, often very pushy.

He hardly knew who I was, of course, but one time when I was working in the business section covering the rapidly declining retail landscape in the Washington area, the lifeblood of the Post’s business, he did me a solid I have never forgotten. A major mogul who paid for a lot of the bills for the newspaper was haranguing me — via phone and via peckish lawyers — for being too hard on him in my coverage of the spectacular meltdown of his family business.

It was a mess through and through, and I had not backed off so far, but I had to admit I was scared when the heat from the mogul got a little stifling. Bradlee — who loved my stories of this retail version of “Dallas” and now and then came over and asked, “Whatcha got today, kid?” (he actually said “kid”) — was there when such a call came through and could see I was distressed.

After I explained the situation, he took only one second to give me a piece of advice that I have been following since: “If your reporting is right, tell them to f#*k off.”

Exactly, a maxim that actually works better than one might imagine it would.

I don’t mean to compare Abramson to Bradlee — no one compares to him easily — but I do look over her record in her three-year tenure and see a lot of amazing accomplishments that she presided over, and it makes me care very little about how warm and fuzzy she was.

That includes eight Pulitzer Prizes for stories ranging from the darker side of Apple’s business practices to corruption in China to the Times’ much-lauded multimedia “Snowfall” project about an avalanche. Just recently, a series of stories about college rape has been devastating to read. Abramson has also been increasing the number of women in more powerful positions at the newspaper, which is what anyone should do, although it almost always falls to a woman to actually get it done.

If you're polarizing, you might want to know science behind it.

If you’re polarizing, you might want to know the science behind it.

In its coverage of the situation, the Times has been curiously weak in its reporting on assertions from Sulzberger, “who was concerned about complaints from employees that [Abramson] was polarizing and mercurial,” the paper wrote days ago.

Well, that’s just typing words on a computer screen — which we all do from time to time. But given the massive attention here, I would have a lot more questions I would want answered if I were writing the real story.

Such as:

Who were these unhappy employees? How many did Sulzberger talk to? Can we hear from them? Are there those with other more positive opinions of Abramson? Why did Thompson ask Abramson in an email to stay only weeks before she was ousted? Can we get some detail into her alleged bad management? What was polarizing? What exactly did she do that was mercurial? Can we show she was capable in other ways? Did she obstruct progress by being so dang grumpy or was it one tactic to signal that change needed to be made? And, is she any worse than some other executive editors? (The last one I can answer myself — no!)

Oddly, the Times story also noted that “Ms. Abramson had recently engaged a consultant to help her with her management style,” but said little else. Exactly what was being suggested by that out-there tidbit?

In other words, some reporting would be nice from the New York Times about the New York Times.

So it will be interesting if its editors ordered up a deep dive into the story as soon as possible, whether it proved Sulzberger had a right to be so worried about his allegedly mercurial leader or if it turns out he made a very bad choice for himself, Abramson and the Times.

At least then, with this incredibly cloddish mess, the New York Times Co. would get something right.



25 comments
Kaleberg
Kaleberg

Hey, Steve Jobs was bitchy. Luckily, he had testicles, so he tended to get good press. (Granted he did get kicked out of his job, then rehired to haul his company back from the edge of bankruptcy and irrelevance.)

Reflections
Reflections

 In the middle of all these discussions am amazed that few even question the problem with being "difficult" "abrasive" or any of the terms used for men and women in leadership/management positions who turn people off or scare them to death, i.e. make work a stress tank.  Women seem always to be taking umbrage at it being alright for men, but not us to be a royal pain.  Why should it be alright for anyone?  Why should not "improved" communications, interactions, more dare I say it, "harmony" not be an objective for all interactions?  Like, what is it we're complaining about in Congress?  I heard a surprising comment from Sec. Clinton during her farewell appearance with Barbara Walters when she discussed our need to be kinder to each other.


If we want "other people" to behave more peaceably, less violence in the world, doesn't it have to start somewhere?


BD34 commenting before me points out it's possible to get results without beating people into pulp.

BD34
BD34

Regardless of one's gender, there is a tendency to accept Type A, assertive/aggressive personalities in the workplace rising as leaders.  My friend works for a very high-profile company, who's CEO is kind, gentle, soft-spoke, polite and yet their employees are motivate to succeed and are doing so.  Just saying...

Noge
Noge

Why is it when some women get criticized they always pull this routine? So now we can't use *any* slightly offensive language to describe women? BS  


Hint: If you want people to treat you equally, then act like most people would and let  criticism roll off your back. 


Who in the hell stares at people like she does when they talk to someone anyway? Sounds crazy.


Tracy Baim
Tracy Baim

Thank you Kara Swisher. Keep on keepin' on. I am publisher of Windy City Times newspaper in Chicago. I have been in LGBT journalism in Chicago for 30 years now, 29 of those years as Managing Editor or higher. In most of that time I have had to put up with sexism and been called "pushy" and the "c" word. It was almost always when they couldn't control me or my views/actions. When I was younger, I felt it was about my age. But now at 51, I realize it was far more about my gender than my age. Now, I just don't care any more. I am saddened that this still goes on, in all kinds of places, not just journalism. But it is particularly difficult to take from a profession that in fact admires those skills you mention in your column--except when coming from a woman in charge. Applause to you for writing this.

Mo
Mo

I am not sure if this comment matters but I really respect and follow Recode and I am reading in other sources that this was more a case of mismanagement -not consulting a senior manager about a new hire and misleading the publisher about that- rather than gender discrimination.

Tess
Tess

> “If your reporting is right, tell them to f#*k off.”


> Exactly, a maxim that actually works better than one might imagine it would.''



<3

GingerSnowboarder
GingerSnowboarder

Kudos on a great article. You tackled many of the yet-to-be-articulated nuances of this story--and the larger societal implications reverberating out of them.

And, btw, having encountered you (Kara) as a presenter and as a journalist receiving a pitch from one of my past companies, I appreciated your approach because it was obvious you just wanted clarity to gain understanding rather than listen to mumbo-jumbo corporate speak. Some might have found such experiences intimidating, but I found them to be refreshing. Wish there were more journalists like you. 

gordo1
gordo1

All this navel gazing, hand wringing, and post-mortem analysis of the Abramson situation does is make executives more reluctant to put women in positions of authority.  Why should they if the risk of discrimination charges goes way up?  Professional women are hurting themselves by the nature and the tone of this debate. 


Playing in the big leagues is very tough and people get fired all the time.  I've seen one executive get frog-marched out of the building escorted by security five minutes after he was fired.  No mercy.


Early in my career I was asked to build a very visible government program from scratch.  I hired the best talent I could find, and I didn't do it by the numbers.  One year I passed up on promoting a talented but still unseasoned black woman professional for a senior position.  I offered it to a white woman but she declined because she had young children and wanted a regular schedule.  No problem with me.  I then promoted a white man into the position, and for the white woman who turned it down I created a special non-managerial position for her because she was so talented.


A few days after I told the black woman that she needed a little more experience, and that I would work with her in her development, I received a call from the front office to meet with the political appointee I worked for.  He was a black man and very good at what he did.  He told me that my job was at risk (I was in the Senior Executive Service which is not protected by normal civil service rules) because of potential discrimination charges - racial and gender.  I was stunned, and then afraid because we had just had our second child and had bought a new home.  Financially we were stretching it.  The bottom line was that if my personnel records indicated any hint of bias I would be fired, and my reputation would be severely damaged. 


After three weeks of no sleep I was called back to the front office.  I sat down with my boss, and for a minute he just looked at me, then he said, "not only are you off the hook but you have one of the best diversity records the personnel office has ever seen.. Over the last two years white men received only 30% of the promotions, bonuses, etc.  The rest went to minorities and women."  I had no idea that this was the case because I focused on talent not numbers.  


Although in my next two companies we had a number of senior executive women, who were great, I never forgot the experience of being labeled a bigot and misogynist.


So, I will go back to my original question.  Why would a board or CEO want to hire a female or minority if certain unspoken baggage comes along with that?  


All these public sentiments by professional women regarding Abramson's dismissal and the reasons for it sounds like whining from insecure professionals.  Toughen up, you are just hurting your own cause.  


As an aside, my guess is that Abramson was the wrong person for the job because she probably scores low on the emotional IQ scale.  A high emotional IQ is essential for those in leadership positions, men or women, and I doubt if she has it.

Moderato
Moderato

"Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. is sometimes referred to as "Pinch," a mocking variation of his father's nickname, "Punch." ...It is a mocking nickname because almost no one who comes into contact with Sulzberger has any respect for him, as a businessman or publisher or intellect." (Source omitted.)

Why isn't this just a case of a jerk in charge who makes and badly executes stupid decisions, as opposed to a "gender" issue?  It seems to be widely believed that "Pinch" is incompetent and thin-skinned, so isn't this more likely a case of a weak leader threatened by a strong second-in-command, regardless of either's gender?

Moderato
Moderato

I thought "pushy" was bigoted stereotypical code for a Jewish person who acted assertive or ambitious and that "belligerent" (like "uppity") was for assertive Black people; but I guess it's now just "fill in the blank."

paleoguy
paleoguy

"don’t seem to be able to grok this too well"  You are apparently a Heinlein fan.  Made me pay a little more attention to your opinion.   Excellent piece.

JMWJMW
JMWJMW

"Let’s also be clear, since too many people — both men and women — don’t seem to be able to grok this too well, despite it being obviously obvious: Phrases like “crazy scary” are often meant to send women quickly back behind the be-nice-ladies line and tap into the societal pressure for females to tamp down their confidence or package it in a more attractive way."


If that had been Mr. Murdoch's idea when he applied the "crazy scary" appellation to you, Kara, he would_have_used_the_term_in_your_presence, and not have told it to an associate later.

MikeInMI
MikeInMI

I have always enjoyed Kara's reporting and opinions and she is certainly a lot closer to what happened at the NYT than I ever will be.  I must add, however, that I've always found that the #1 priority of keeping my job was getting along with my boss.  That didn't mean sucking up and didn't mean always agreeing.  Sometimes it meant disagreeing in a very significant way.  But in a respectful way.


But in the end I have found that my boss had to value and appreciate me to a greater extent than the suffering s/he went through due to the things s/he didn't like.  Obviously, Abramson wasn't able to get there. 

jlouderb
jlouderb

I just have to say that this is a very fine piece of editorial.  Great content, fun to read, insightful and "good to the last drop".


That is all.


jim

mackaybell
mackaybell

Great piece.  Witty and insightful.

Janice Schacter Lintz
Janice Schacter Lintz

The NY Times repeatedly uses these terms to report about women including myself.  It is disingenuous now for an Editor to complain about them.  http://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/05/arts/05hear.html  It is time the media stop using these horrific phrases and start viewing women as accomplished people who get things done just as would for a man.


Janice Schacter Lintz, Chair, Hearing Access Program


Joe Bentzel, Platformula Group
Joe Bentzel, Platformula Group

"In other words, some reporting would be nice from the New York Times about the New York Times." KS


LOL. Good one. That will happen right around the time the government announces the existence of UFOs.

BruceK
BruceK

In any successful organization, the head must make decisions that are difficult for some to accept, that offend or hurt other, but further the mission of the group. That said, an effective leader must work hard to get the troops on board with the mission. For the group to succeed, the troops must not only believe in the leader but need to feel included. Have they been heard? Have their concerns been taken into account, even if their own suggestions are not being implemented? Can the troops be melded into a unit that works well together? Will they be inspired by the leader to do more and to do better? 


These questions may be hard to answer fully about Jill Abramson given the need for privacy and confidentiality within the organization. If Sulzberger decided correctly, the proof will be in the pudding. If he erred with this firing, I pity the New York Times.

JefinLondon
JefinLondon

Ms Swisher's piece defends even exults in being abrasive and pushy in the newsroom and the board room alike. 


My experience is that in most cases those that cross the line from being demanding but respectful to being abusive and consciously abrasive get it in the end. 

Real leadership is getting the right things done the right way and there's no place in the workplace for anything less.

nybroad
nybroad

Of all the analyses of the many meanings of Jill Abramson's firing that I've read, this one is by far the best.

Kudos for writing it, and btw owning being a "crazy scary" lady, which is even higher up than the Chapter Head of the League of Pushy Women - you may be self-appointed but I'd vote for you, or a disgruntled housewife. Though they may all be related ...

JimHarvie
JimHarvie

Those are great questions you ask. Maybe assign a reporter to them? I'd be suspicious of the New York Times version.

JMWJMW
JMWJMW

@Moderato or, it's always been something akin to "being asked or told to do something by a superior who you don't respect" because you identify the superior as being of "them" and not "us?"

shsh38
shsh38

@BruceK  FYI, the correct expression is, "The proof of the pudding is in the tasting."  Or sometimes, ". . . in the eating."  Either way, the proof is most assuredly not IN the pudding.  Thought you'd like to know.  Pass it on.  <grin>


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