How The New York Times Eats Its Own

The New York Times does not like gossip, especially gossip about The New York Times.

“I just don’t think any of these stories can be responded to with a clear thumbs up or down,” the paper’s new executive editor, Dean Baquet, wrote on Sunday in an email to Gawker, referring to widespread—and anonymously sourced—reporting about the dramatic firing of his predecessor, Jill Abramson. Baquet added: “I have a paper to run and dozens of media calls to deal with if I were to play. I choose to spend my time on the paper.”

In a Saturday memo, Baquet’s boss and Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. blasted “the misinformation that has been widely circulating in the media” about Abramson’s wages at the Times. (Sulzberger revisited the issue in a Sunday interview with Vanity Fair, insisting that Abramson was not paid less than her predecessor, Bill Keller.)

David Carr diagnosed the newsroom’s mood about the Abramson spectacle in his Monday Times column: “The news set off a gleeful frenzy in Manhattan media, which usually have to subsist on fake New York Times controversies. ... It has probably been fun to watch but not for the people who work here.” He added, parenthetically: “All the talk about pay inequity and her lawyering up to get her due was a sideshow in my estimation.”

The paper’s anti-rumor, anti-gossip stance—at least regarding Abramson—is hard to square with reality. Gossip from within the Times, for and against Abramson, has been plentiful and detailed, accounting for Abramson’s hour-by-hour recruitment of Guardian editor Janine Gibson, and Baquet’s minute-by-minute emotions about feeling duped by his boss, in stories published by outside outlets, including the gossip website Gawker.

For people who want to traffic in respectable facts, meanwhile, the Times has supplied only a grudging string of vague and obfuscating official claims. “There is nothing more at issue here,” Arthur Sulzberg, Jr. initially told Brian Stelter on May 14, the day he announced Abramson’s ouster. A day later, however, the paper’s P.R. department aggressively denied a New Yorker report alleging that Abramson had been paid less than her male colleagues—but did not release (and still hasn’t) any hard numbers contradicting the magazine’s reporting.

And the Times itself is not above churning the Abramson rumor mill. While official statements from company executives initially referred to “some aspects of Jill’s management,” it was Carr and another Times reporter, Ravi Somaiya, who reported, early on, about “complaints from employees that [Abramson] was polarizing and mercurial” and that she was “accused by some of divisiveness.” She had even “engaged a consultant to help her with her management style.”

Carr and Somaiya, whose story appeared on the paper’s front page, attributed these claims to anonymous “people”: “people briefed on the situation”; “people in the company”; “people familiar with [Dean Baquet’s] thinking.”

The pair were printing gossip, in other words. By Saturday, Sulzberger was speaking openly about Abramson’s “arbitrary decision-making” and “public mistreatment of colleagues.” (As with her compensation numbers, he declined to supply any actual examples of such behavior.) The Times scion repeated these statements to Vanity Fair the next day.

It’s true that many of these accounts, pro- and anti-Abramson, have been mediated by well-placed surrogates. And the principals in both camps have denied any personal involvement. About The New Yorker’s (and others’) reporting, Baquet insisted: “It didn’t come from me. I told [Ken] Auletta I couldn’t play. Nothing personal. I promise.”

Abramson’s 31-year-old daughter, Cornelia Griggs, said in an email that her mother had adopted a similar strategy. “My mother isn’t speaking to anyone at the moment,” explained Griggs, who posted a photo of Abramson wearing boxing gloves on Instagram late last week. “She’s also not reading anything either (a first!).”

It’s also true that Carr and Somaiya were not the first to air these rumors. Last year, Politico published a story depicting Abramson as “unreasonable” and “impossible” for terrible things like asking an editor to change a photo on the paper’s website. But until last week, Politico’s piece was considered a hollow hatchet job that reinforced a double-standard for women in journalism.

Emily Bell of The Guardian argued that the piece “fuels an exasperating and wholly sexist narrative about women in power.” The Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri added: “This just sounds like sexist griping against someone who is just doing her job.” Times reporter Jo Becker told the item’s author, Dylan Byers, that “Politico portrayed [Abramson] in a way I find it impossible to believe it would have done had she been a man.” Byers’ dozen-or-so anonymous Times sources wound up subverting their own thesis.

Yet Carr and Somaiya’s story trafficked in the same anonymous complaints, and even cited the year-old Politico piece in their report. It’s quite possible that their sources and Politico’s overlapped. Since they were writing for the Times, however, their readers considered the rumors a proper story, part of a narrative about Abramson’s personality.

This was extremely useful to the Times as a company. While subsequent accounts focused on whether Abramson was paid less than her male colleagues, and whether she had somehow misled her bosses about the recruitment of a managing editor, each story eventually returned—each discussion slowly boiled down—to the allegation that Abramson, unlike Baquet, was a fickle and belligerent boss.

She was fired, as the Drudge Report put it on Sunday, “for being a bitch.”

And why would anyone doubt that? They read all about it, after all, in the Times.

To contact the author of this post, email trotter@gawker.com

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