(Corrects wording of quote in third paragraph.)
Jill Abramson, the ousted executive editor of the New York Times, said today she knows “the sting of losing” as she delivered the commencement speech for graduates at Wake Forest University.
While Abramson didn’t directly address the controversy surrounding her unceremonious exit, she turned the speech, titled “The Importance of a Truly Free Press,” into a discussion about resiliency.
“And some of you — and now I’m talking to anyone who’s been dumped, you bet — not gotten the job you really wanted or receive those horrible rejection letters of grad school,” she said today in her first public comments since exiting the Times last week. “You know the sting of losing, or not getting something you badly want. When that happens, show what you are made of.”
Abramson, 60, was abruptly fired on May 14 following a fraught relationship with Arthur Sulzberger, the newspaper’s publisher and chairman as well as leader of the Ochs-Sulzberger family that controls the Times. The two had clashed from the beginning of her tenure as executive editor, people familiar with the matter have said. Sulzberger dismissed Abramson after concluding that “she had lost the support of her masthead colleagues and could not win it back,” he said in a statement released May 17.
Abramson, a graduate of Harvard College, joked that she was now in the same situation as many of the graduates.
“What’s next for me? I don’t know,” she said. “So I’m in exactly the same boat as many of you. Like you, I’m a little scared, but also excited.”
An unusually large media presence had gathered for the commencement exercises of the private university that has about 5,000 undergraduates. They were there to witness Abramson’s first public comments following her firing, and the media scrum rivaled the presidential debate between George W. Bush and Al Gore that took place on the bucolic, Winston-Salem, North Carolina campus in 2000.
Abramson, wearing jeans and sneakers under her gown, took note of the significant news presence, saying “my only reluctance in showing up today is that the small media circus following me would detract attention away from you -- what total knockouts you are!”
Abramson, in response to a question after the event, said she shook each graduate’s hand after they received diplomas because she wanted to and because “it’s an honor.” She declined to answer any other questions.
Before her speech, the uproar over the brusque ouster of the first woman to run the Times in its 162-year history had already become a spectacle of warring memos and Twitter hashtags, with dual narratives playing out. In one, Abramson supporters -- rallying under #TeamJill -- focus on disparities in the way female managers are treated and paid. In the other, Sulzberger says Abramson had conflicts with too many people in the newsroom, and he disputes she was paid less than her predecessor.
“The story isn’t over, not even close,” Abramson’s doctor daughter, Cornelia Little Griggs, posted on Instagram on May 16.
Rachel Berry, who received a master of arts in counseling, said she was impressed by how gracious Abramson was in her speech today.
“I liked the message of showing your character when things aren’t going well,” Berry said. “Everyone here is very optimistic and wide-eyed. But life is really more about being resilient in the face of difficult times.”
Some parents said her speech was an important message to the graduates who are likely to face a challenging work environment.
“It was a really incredible statement to the students to say it can happen to anyone,” said Dave Hall, whose son Brooks is graduating with a degree in art history and business.
Added his wife Becky Hall, “She’s saying it hurt. ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do but I’ll be O.K.’ What better message for the kids than to say no matter what happens you’ll make it.”
The talk of management style has been unnerving to supporters who rejoiced in 2011 at Abramson’s elevation to the top journalism job at the world’s most influential English-language newspaper. Kathleen Gerson, a sociology professor at New York University, said the firing sends a mixed message at a time when women are being encouraged to promote themselves in the workplace, as described in the book “Lean In” by Facebook Inc. Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg.
“She was a beacon of hope for women in all kinds of other pursuits,” Gerson said. “All the advice that young women have been getting is being contradicted.” Sandberg declined to comment.
Parent Debbie Simpson said she stood up and applauded after Abramson’s speech at Wake Forest today.
“It still takes a lot of bravery for women to do what they do, even today,” she said.
Social-media banter continued steadily through the weekend in advance of Abramson’s commencement address.
The chatter was fanned by a May 17 statement from Sulzberger denying any gender bias in his decision to fire Abramson and promote Managing Editor Dean Baquet to replace her. She was paid 10 percent more than predecessor Bill Keller in her last full year, Sulzberger said, without breaking out her salary, bonus and other compensation.
“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,” Sulzberger wrote.
Kara Swisher, the co-executive editor of the Re/code technology blog and former Wall Street Journal reporter, wrote a post aligning herself with Abramson as a “Pushy Media Dame.”
“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,” Swisher wrote.
Not everyone blamed Abramson’s departure on her gender. Lydia Polgreen, the Times’s deputy international editor, said on Twitter that there would have been a revolt at the paper had women perceived that Abramson was fired because of her gender: “There have been many searching conversations, but no women’s revolt.”
She later said on Twitter: “The very real struggle for equality in the newsroom seems poorly served by a very messy and complicated situation.”
Abramson is known as an advocate of gender equality. When she became editor in September 2011, she said she “stood on other shoulders” than the men who preceded her and thanked more than a dozen women she said helped her during her career. Among those she thanked: Janet Robinson, who was fired as the company’s chief executive officer about two months later. That was a management change Abramson was unhappy about, according to a person with knowledge of the matter who didn’t want to be named because he isn’t authorized to talk publicly.
The end of Abramson’s career at the Times shows how women often face a double bind of being harshly judged for being aggressive and tough, traits that are expected and praised in male leaders.
“Men are stereotypically expected to take charge, while women are stereotypically expected to take care,” said Deborah Gillis, president and CEO of Catalyst, the New York research and advocacy group for women executives. “When women don’t conform to the stereotypes, they get pushback.”
Regardless of whether being female played a role in Abramson’s firing, “the whole way it’s being discussed is gendered,” said Mary Dalton, a professor of communications and gender issues at Wake Forest.
Women have long lagged men in top newspaper positions. According to data from the American Society of Newspaper Editors, about 34 percent of supervisory positions are held by women, a proportion that’s barely budged in 15 years.
Women haven’t been underrepresented only in management at the Times. According to a report on the Status of Women in the U.S. Media by the Women’s Media Center this year, the Times had the widest gender gap in male-female bylines of the 10 largest U.S. newspapers. Men were quoted 3.4 times more often than women in page one stories in a study of the January and February 2013 issues by students at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Many female reporters and editors at the Times who saw Abramson as both an advocate and a role model are upset, according to a reporter who didn’t want to be named because she wasn’t authorized to speak about the matter.
“Newsrooms have a ways to go with regards to women,” Lexi Mainland, a New York Times editor, said on Twitter, “not least of which NYT.”
The story made Abramson part of the news, instead of one of its purveyors. The New York Post ran photographs of Abramson doing routine chores such as walking her dog; New York magazine’s fashion blog, the Cut, offered advice from Brooklyn artists on how the ousted editor should alter the Times’s T logo she has said is tattooed on her back.
Asked by Wake Forest students last night whether she’ll get her tattoo removed, Abramson said she replied: “Not a chance.”