The New York Times Is Run by a Human PR Disaster

The New York Times, and in particular its publisher, Pinch "Pinch" Sulzberger Jr., is taking a lot of flack for abruptly firing editor Jill Abramson yesterday. Amid the uproar, let's not forget to criticize Sulzberger for this: had it been handled differently, there might not be all this criticism.

Here is how the world's most prominent and influential newspaper decided to handle the firing and abrupt replacement of its top editor: by having her boss, with no warning, just call a little meeting and tell everyone on staff that it was happening. During his newsroom announcement, Sulzberger refused to get into the details of why the change was being made. The paper sent out a press release yesterday announcing that the change had been made, but offering no real explanation. The announcement came in a manner that caused the Times' own story to proclaim it "abrupt" and say that the newsroom was "stunned."

Within the next few hours, a wave of anonymously sourced stories came out to fill in the back story, the most prominent one, from Ken Auletta, floating a possible pay discrepancy between Abramson and her male predecessor, Bill Keller, as one source of conflict between her and upper management. (The paper itself was not even prepared enough to have its story straight on this point after the firing.) The Times itself had to fill in its own story on the change with more anonymous sourcing, which made clear that there were serious management conflicts between Abramson on one side, and Dean Baquet and Sulzberger on the other side.

So now, less than 24 hours after the firing, here is the dominant narrative about what happened: Jill Abramson, the paper's first female editor, was abruptly and unexpectedly fired by her male boss for mercurial and unclear reasons— shortly after she complained about being paid less than her male predecessor. She was replaced by another male. The people at the top of the paper have been very hush-hush about the back story on this. What are they hiding?

Let's set aside, for a moment, the question of whether Jill Abramson should have been fired. Let's instead briefly enumerate just a few of the ways that Pinch Sulzberger, who is publisher of the New York Times solely due to his last name, botched the handling of this episode:

  1. He imagined that he could replace his top editor without an explanation. Perhaps Sulzberger imagines that he runs a company that makes cardboard boxes, or toilets. Wrong: he runs a newspaper. This means that every bit of office intrigue is a media story. Which will come out. The Times is a vast and leaky ship. There is never a big media story about the Times' interior operations that does not come out in full eventually. The workplace is full of reporters! They all gossip! They all leak! There have been entire books written about the Times' workplace gossip! Everything will come out, Pinch! Everything!
  2. He did not give an interview to his own paper about firing his own paper's editor. This is both insulting and dumb. He forced his own paper to run a story based on anonymous sourcing about the firing of its own editor. He also left his own reporters vulnerable to being beaten by competitors on their own story.
  3. "As part of a settlement agreement between her and the paper, neither side would go into detail about her firing," the paper reported. This makes the paper look as if it has something to hide. Which is useless, because, as we mentioned, everything will come out anyhow. Let the woman speak her mind. She is an adult. Firing her is high-handed enough, without an accompanying public payment of hush money.
  4. Abramson was not present at the newsroom announcement of her firing. Probably because she was pissed, which is quite reasonable! Contrast that with Howell Raines, the editor who was shitcanned in 2003 in the wake of the Jayson Blair fiasco: Rebecca Traister points out that when he "finally left the paper, it was with an address to the staff; his wife was present." This is a man who presided over an actual enormous scandal, not just someone whose management style was not preferred by the boss. The fact that Sulzberger could not even take the time to work out a departure for Abramson that allowed her to leave with grace speaks to the fact that he seems to have not a care in the world for how this whole thing looks.
  5. And even if Jill Abramson was not the right person for the job of Times editor, guess whose fault that is? Pinch Sulzberger, the man who hired her! The implicit statement in her firing is: Once again, the Times' publisher failed to install the right person as editor. Our own Tom Scocca notes that Joe Lelyveld is the only editor who actually made it to natural retirement age under Sulzberger's reign. Howell Raines was fired, Bill Keller fled the job (and then the paper) early, and Abramson has now been canned. It's almost as if the real weakness in the paper's masthead lies at the very top, where these hiring decisions are made...

Sulzberger's inept execution of Abramson's firing has sacrificed any chance of having the narrative become this: Perhaps it will be a good thing. Perhaps the paper will improve. Perhaps Jill Abramson was not the right person for the job. Perhaps this was a tough decision that needed to be made for the collective good.

I don't know if those things are true. I do know that no one at this moment is very motivated to explore whether those things are true, because we are all already ensconced in the aforementioned storyline that Pinch Sulzberger has created. Even if, to play devil's advocate, this decision turns out to have been a good one, Sulzberger has already blown it. Had he allowed Abramson a graceful exit, been open and honest about the reasons for the move, and taken the blame for the mistakes that created the situation in the first place, the publisher might have emerged from this looking like a competent manager. Instead, he emerges from it looking like a befuddled, craven sexist.

Sulzberger needs a decent PR advisor more than he needs a new editor.

[Photo: AP]