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Jill Abramson Was Haunted by NYT's Family Ghosts

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

If the newspaper's owners had done better hiring long ago, aspirants of all persuasions, genders and colors would fail or succeed at their requisite speeds. And thus the loss of Abramson would not appear as the loss of the only redwood in the forest.

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If the newspaper's owners had done better hiring long ago, aspirants of all persuasions, genders and colors would fail or succeed at their requisite speeds. And thus the loss of Abramson would not appear as the loss of the only redwood in the forest.
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Jill Abramson at gala
Jill Abramson at WeNews' 21 Leaders for 21st Century awards, May 6, 2014

 

Credit: Hajer Naili

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(WOMENSENEWS)--If you create a timeline for The New York Times from its establishment in 1851 to June 2011, when Jill Abramson was named executive editor, you'll find few women's names and dates.

Some of the scarcity represents the kinds of work women could do in the 19th century. In those days, the Times, like most other New York newspapers, barred female journalists from the city room. But when customs changed, the Times remained particularly resistant, reflecting, I believe, the difficulties the current owning family has in shaking the misogynist ghost of Adolph S. Ochs, the man who in 1896 bought the Times, made it great and created the family dynasty.

Look at the poisoned discussion whirling around the May 14 firing of Abramson, when Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. convened the staff and announced that Abramson was out and that Dean Baquet, the managing editor, now had her job.

If the Times' publisher thought this was destined to be a routine matter, he was greatly mistaken. Abramson was the first woman to be named executive editor, and when the publisher appointed her, he created a landmark. Women who have struggled to reach the top in journalism saw her as a model for better days ahead. Such a reversal creates ferocious dispute.

As a leader of the Times women's caucus in the 1970s, I was often asked in the almost three years of Abramson's tenure how I felt about her.

I said I was delighted she was in the post, she seemed highly qualified and what took the Times so long? To those asking what I meant by "long," I replied that Abramson graduated from high school with our older son, and that's long in my estimation: members of the class of 1972 are 60 years old.

For those dedicated to the creation of a diverse newsroom, the poison in the air has another sad aspect. Baquet is now the first African-American executive editor. But his achievement is virtually buried. He lost his editor's job at the Los Angeles Times in a dispute over layoffs, an honorable departure, I believe. But he now finds himself getting the top job at the New York Times amid a landslide of gossip, and only after his predecessor has been unceremoniously removed.

Historically, the Times was glacially slow in hiring women who could rise in its ranks, and still slower in hiring nonwhite employees for almost anything. I pose the theory that if they had done better hiring long ago, aspirants of all persuasions, genders and colors would fail or succeed at their requisite speeds. And thus the loss of Abramson would not appear as the loss of the only redwood in the forest.

Let me tell three anecdotes about the tenacity of misogyny.

Ochs Bars His Daughter, Iphigene

First, Ochs' only child was a girl, Iphigene, born in 1892. About to graduate from Barnard in 1914, she covertly negotiated a job at the Times. When her father found out, he was outraged. No, indeed, Ochs did not want women in his newsroom, not even his daughter. This despite hopes he had raised in his little girl -- by introducing her to Mark Twain, among others, as the future publisher.

Career plans quashed, in 1917, she married Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who became publisher in 1935 after Ochs, his father-in-law, died. But Iphigene was not always pleased about the shape of her life. In 1955, to mark Sulzberger's 20th year as publisher, a stag party was held at "21." A recorded toast from Sulzberger's wife – through whom he had inherited his social importance – was played.

"Dear Arthur," his wife's voice said. "Once more you must admit I am right. If this were not a man's world, as I have always insisted it was, I would not be left out in the cold tonight. If I'd had been the boss's son instead of his daughter, this party might have been for me and not for you."

The reliable history of the Ochs-Sulzberger family, "The Trust," by Susan Tifft and Alex Jones, adds this: A female relative heard the words wrong but the message right when she reported that the publisher's wife had said, "What would have become of you if I had been born a boy?"

McCormick's Prize

Second, Ochs' adamantine opposition meant that only four women were hired in the newsroom while he was publisher. Nan Robertson's book "The Girls in the Balcony" identifies them as Mary Taft, hired in the late 1890s; Jane Grant, who later married Harold Ross and helped found The New Yorker; Rachel McDowell, who covered religion from 1920 to 1949; and the author Nancy Hale, who worked there briefly in 1934. Midy Morgan, the towering eccentric who covered the stockyards and horse auctions, died before Ochs bought the Times.

Meanwhile, an Ohio writer, Anne O'Hare, born in 1880, had spent 10 years on a Catholic paper in Cleveland, occasionally contributing to other publications. In 1910, she married Francis McCormick, an agent for a plumbing-supply company, and joined him for European sales trips. In 1921 Anne O'Hare McCormick bearded the lion, writing Carr Van Anda, the Times managing editor, to ask if she could send him articles from Europe on a space-rate basis. Van Anda said she could try.

McCormick, who traveled from city to city without ever contacting the Times resident correspondents, got any number of exclusive stories, interviewing Roosevelt, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, all on space rates. In 1934, she was still being paid by the column inch. In June 1936, a year after Ochs died, when she was 56 years old, Sulzberger, as publisher, named her to the editorial board – its first woman – and she got a regular column. A year later, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished foreign correspondence, the Times' first female winner, and for 33 years after, the only one.

Ruth Sulzberger Bypassed

Third, Arthur Hays Sulzberger stepped aside as publisher in 1961 in favor of Orville Dryfoos, the husband of the Sulzbergers' oldest daughter, Marian. When Dryfoos died abruptly two years later, the only son among the four Sulzberger children, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger – "Punch" – was considered by his parents to be too immature to take over. The parents shuffled and reshuffled the cards to see how to manage while he grew into the job.

All along, there was a suitable candidate for publisher at the table: Ruth Sulzberger Golden, the second of the Sulzbergers' children. She was in Tennessee where her then husband, Ben Golden, was publisher of The Chattanooga Times, a paper also owned by the Ochs Trust. She knew the family business from sitting on the board and helping to direct the Chattanooga paper, but she was passed up, and Punch got the position. When Punch retired in 1992, the post went to his son, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr.

I Join All-Male Copydesk in 1956

I joined the Times in 1956 as the first female copy editor in the newsroom. The newsmagazines had earlier discovered the value of hiring college-educated women, but there was the Times, still doing the Ochs thing after 60 years, nervously hiring one woman for the all-male copydesks.

By the 1970s, the nearly 600 women working at the Times – about half of them were classified-ad sellers -- moved to join the women's growing campaign to equalize their opportunities and pay with men doing the same jobs.

We formed a caucus, in the custom of the time, to use the Equal Employment guidelines of the new federal civil rights law. After four years, in 1978, the federal court approved a settlement. For the period of its enforcement, our charts showed, we slowed the widening of the gap between men's pay and women's. But the part of the agreement that listed "goals and timetables" for the promotion of women into high-level jobs was another story. The Times often did not reach the numerical targets. At the highest levels, it is clear, the spirit of Adolph S. Ochs survived.

The disheartening display at the Times on May 14 is another product of a regrettable legacy.

 

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