Politico, July 18, 2014
By Gail Sheehy
The first thing one notices about Jill Abramson is her short stature. The second is her intensity.
When she came to my home earlier this week to speak to an NGO crowd, she slipped off her shoes and stepped up on a footstool, perspiring but indefatigable. Wearing a sleeveless print dress, she showed off a green tattoo on each upper arm. “I got them when I turned 50,” she said, to testify to her cool.
The night beforehand, Abramson, who is now 60, and I sat down for a one-on-one conversation about the most daring moments in her life. She was about to break her two-month silence about being dismissed as the top woman news editor in America, and she wasn’t licking her wounds. “I’ve always been on the daring side,” she told me, adding wryly, “for better or worse.”
This week’s press tour was vintage Abramson: She ran it herself by choosing what she called “kickass women,” from Cosmo’s Leslie Yazel to Fox News’ Greta van Susteren to tell her story as a proud tale of survivorship.
In our chat, Abramson spoke about press freedom, her career and the powerful women she’s encountered along the way.
Among them was Hillary Clinton, whom she met in 1978, while Bill Clinton was running for governor. At the time, Abramson found her to be friendly and very helpful as a source. But once Hillary became first lady, their relationship cooled. “Hillary is incredibly unrealistic about journalists,” Abramson told me. “She expects you to be 100 percent in her corner, especially women journalists. She got angry with me because when I became the top-ranking woman at the New York Times, she thought I should be loyal. An editor is going to be independent, always.”
As for getting fired from a newspaper that has tolerated men with far more prickly demeanors, “It’s a double standard,” she says unflinchingly. But Abramson is not feeling sorry for herself. If anything, she’s reveling in the chance to inspire other women to take on their own battles. That’s why she launched her unconventional media tour, and I believe that’s why she spoke with me.
With all the attention on how “tough” she is, what’s lost in the reporting is how often Abramson has been under attack. If she’s abrasive, maybe it’s because she’s had to be.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush approved the widespread eavesdropping program to hunt for terrorist activity. The Bush administration continued to push back on any stories on the spying operation, insisting it would compromise national security. After Abramson was named the first woman managing editor of the Times in 2003, she became increasingly passionate about exposing the illegal spying problem. The Times held back until 2004, when she assigned James Risen and Eric Lichtblau to break the super-scoop about the illegal spying program. The article ran in December 2005. It won a Pulitzer.
Abramson has received much stronger pushback from the Obama administration on stories of national intelligence than from the Bush crowd. Recently, when she wanted to run a story about an intelligence intercept in Yemen, James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, threatened her: “You will have blood on your hands.” “Those were literally his words,” she said. With minor censoring, she ran the story. (When I called Abramson to fact-check this paragraph, the newly liberated editor said: “That’s all. I am going back to the beach.”)
“I’ve had the same threat from Obama government officials,” Abramson told me. “They have argued that if I ran a story about our operations, I would be helping terrorists carry out an attack.” In some cases, she says, the information is already in the public domain. “When an intel operation goes well, the administration is happy to talk about it—for example, the capture of bin Laden. When it doesn’t go well, they don’t want it revealed.”
I asked her: Was her daring nature inborn or cultivated? As a child, Jill was not a natural athlete. She was a brainy kid who attended the Ethical Culture and Fieldston School, an elite set of private academies in the Upper West Side and the Bronx, and read the New York Times each day before class. Her father liked nothing better, on summer evenings after work, than to take his little daughter to Central Park with a bat and a softball.
“Keep your eye on the ball!” he’d say. “And hit hard.” These were the most useful life lessons a future editor could have had.
“I’ve always been confident about competing in male-dominated environments,” she said. At age 18, Jill was one of the few women to dare to invade the all-male preserve of Harvard Yard. It was 1972 and for the first time, the university allowed women to live in a male dorm. Out of 1,200 students, almost 900 were men. Jill was one of the fraction of the 300 women who asked to move into the hostile corridors of male dorms.
It was the earliest of her many invasions as a “first woman.” It excited her to dare again.
Her first full-time job in journalism was at the Boston bureau of Time magazine. “It seemed daring to me to go up to people I didn’t know and get in their face and start asking questions,” she remembers. “I’d have to talk myself into doing it. But once you do, it quickly becomes second nature.”
She came under the mentorship of the highest-ranking woman at Time, Sandy Burton, who had started as a secretary. “I was under the impression that the professional world must be full of accomplished women like Sandy,” Abramson said with a laugh. She never again had a woman boss. It was clearly up to her to be daring enough to crack the glass ceiling again and again.
At the Wall Street Journal, where she went next, she was given two prime subjects to cover: money and politics. When she broke stories that beat the Times, an editor called to recruit her to come over to the Grey Lady. It had always been her goal to reach the pinnacle at the Times. Hired in 1997, she was soon promoted as the No. 2 editor in the Washington bureau.
It was thrilling to be there for 9/11, she recalls, reporting to readers everything there was to know about Osama bin Laden. “I kept pushing for the Times to ramp up its Iraq war coverage,” she said.
I asked Abramson if she’d had daring moments in her personal life. “Many,” she said. “I decided to have children at a pretty young age.” It was the very early 1980s, when the social instructions for women who wanted a big career were to wait until 35 or later, until one’s career was well-established. The Abramsons had nothing like a stable income. Jill had taken a job with Steven Brill at a startup magazine, The American Lawyer, while her husband worked for a labor union.
Jill had her daughter at 29 and her son at 31. “That was a daring choice,” she told me. “And it’s the happiest choice I made in my life, because now I’m reminded that jobs come and go, but your family is forever.”
At the gathering the next evening—organized by the Common Good, a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to encouraging civil dialogue—60 guests crowded into my overheated living room, eager for direct exposure to a woman media boss portrayed by press reports as “tough,” “abrasive,” “mercurial,” even “belligerent.”
Abramson began laying out the most urgent issue on her mind: the encroachment on press freedom. Jim Risen, a colleague of hers in the Washington bureau of the Times, has recently been subpoenaed by the Justice Department. Abramson was vehement in pointing out that this is one of the eight criminal leak investigations that the Obama administration has initiated.
“That is more than twice the number of criminal cases against whistleblowers that have been prosecuted in all of history,” she said. She urged the crowd to follow the news about the Risen case “because it strikes at the heart of our democracy.”
She invited dialogue, and for half an hour gave clear, nuanced answers to every question. Gender bias in political reporting? “No question.” She offered advice for young women assigned to a political campaign. “Right now there are more women senior campaign aides—they’ll want to help you out, so make them your best sources.”
When an audience member finally broke the ice to ask how she felt about her dismissal from the job she dearly loved, Abramson was unapologetic but not angrily defensive about her “management style. “I dig in behind the surface to get to the real story,” she asserted, “and you have to be tough to do that. But I don’t think I’m any tougher than most journalists, men or women, who strive to do that in their work.”
Earlier, she and I had laughed about the management style of Abe Rosenthal, never accused of being diplomatic. A tyrant who sustained a reign of terror over the newsroom from 1968 to the mid-1980s, he was legendary for his rages, rants and homophobia. No one dared fire him, and he only left, unwillingly, when ageism retired him at 65.
Why then, could she be fired for her “management style?” In her deep, gravelly voice, she said, “It’s a double standard. I am very proud of the newsroom I ran and the people I hired.”
Her proudest achievement, she said, was the hiring of strong women as senior writers and editors. At the end of her first year, she could open the paper to the masthead page and for the first time ever see an equal number of women and men.
She seemed genuine about looking forward to returning to her alma mater this fall and teaching Harvard students a course on narrative non-fiction.
At the end of the evening, many remarked on how “likeable” Jill Abramson was. She had lived up to the advice she had given earlier. “If you are fired—and lots of people are being fired these days—show what you are made of.”
John Harwood, a popular CNBC correspondent, had come along to vouch for exactly that. Having worked with Abramson twice, at the Wall Street Journal and at the Times, he told the audience, “I’ve seen all the great journalists of our generation, and there’s nobody that I have worked with who has the talent, the values, the integrity, the brains and—despite her badass exterior—who has the heart of Jill Abramson.”
This article originally appeared on POLITICO on July 18, 2014.