Crabs in a Gilded Bucket

Abramson vs. The New York Times 


Lenses, lenses, so many lenses.

As with most pop-up media scandals these days, where you come down on a given flap depends on where you’re from — your background and experience.

Since news first broke mid-afternoon on May 14 that Jill Abramson, Executive Editor of The New York Times, had been fired, a river of digital commentary has gushed forth. To recap: in an unexpected all-staff meeting, Times Publisher and Board Chairman, Arthur Sulzburger, Jr., said that Abramson, 60, was no longer working for the company.

The Times publisher said that Abramson was an outstanding editor — but also indicated that her leadership style led to “an issue with management in the newsroom.” Abramson had held the post since 2011, and had worked at the Times for more than a decade.

To the staff at the Times’ HQ and to those listening in from remote locations, the announcement was a shock. In a remarkable feat of digital ventriloquism, Brian Stelter, a former Times reporter now at CNN, posted Tweets from the meeting, presumably sent to him in real-time by a former colleague at the Times HQ who fed him quotes.

Sulzburger had more: Effective immediately, Dean Baquet, the 57 year-old Managing Editor, would replace Abramson. Contributing to the discomfort of the abrupt change — it was clear that Abramson had been fired, although Sulzburger did not say it explicitly — was the strong element of economic and cultural-political implications bound up in the change: Abramson had been the Times first woman chief editorial leader, and Baquet would become its first African-American top newsroom executive.

It Wasn’t Too Long Ago: Smith & Barnicle vs. The Boston Globe

Now, let’s pull back for a moment.

From 2000 to 2005, I covered the American news business for Africana.com, later taken over by AOL’s BlackVoices. Specifically, I inaugurated a race and media beat that examined both the coverage produced by U.S. news outlets, and the internal factors (economics, politics, history) that affect and shape staff demographics of news organizations. I am here to tell you that not since the painful 1998 blow up of two marquee Boston Globe metro columnists over fabrications and plagiarism (Patricia Smith, followed by Mike Barnicle), has there been a larger race and gender shit-storm at a major American news organization.

In “Uncovering Race,” I chronicle 20-plus years of race, media, class and gender situations in US media.

No, not even the 2003 Jayson Blair scandal at the Times delivered such a forceful race and gender gut punch. Really, in the postmodern litany of race and media scandals, many outlined in a book on race and media that I wrote in 2011, this latest Times situation has all the elements of a milestone moment.

Yet we seem to have collective memory loss in these matters. In addition to a rogue’s gallery of male and female and black and white Bad Actors, there is another unmentioned but common thread in all these major race and media scandals: white guy “leaders” who blow it.

And, considering that Gender Inequality quickly became the prevailing theme to the trail of outraged posts that have published since Abramson’s ouster, I am compelled to call for a time out. Explicitly, I am asking that you remove for just a moment your gendered lenses and replace them with race filters.

Here is why: White women have been the largest beneficiaries of diversity initiatives at American news organizations. Jill Abramson and Dean Baquet have professional profiles that are very similar, indeed, both were serving in senior editorial management positions in 2011, and yet, when Sulzburger replaced the previous Executive Editor, Bill Keller, a white man, he selected Abramson for the position, not Baquet, who as the Times’ Washington, D.C. bureau chief, was eminently qualified. Sulzburger selected her despite reportedly having some misgivings about her people skills. It is appropriate to ask why Sulzburger bothered to appoint Abramson in the top spot in 2011, if the reports of his doubts are accurate. It is valid to ask: Did Sulzburger hedge his bets that a white woman “first” as Executive Editor would be an easier sell to staff, shareholders and the wider world than installing “the first black male EE?”

These are uncomfortable questions, I know.

And I am deeply sensitive to the undertone of Victimization Sweepstakes that has characterized much of the punditry that has published in the aftermath (as in, the history of workplace discrimination, bias, and unequal treatment of white women matters more or less than the history of workplace discrimination, etc., of blacks. I actually believe from experience that it is black women more than any segment of the American workforce who are the most likely to hit gender, race and class obstacles.) There is another motif related to the Victimization Sweepstakes, a term that first gained traction in black communities in the early 20th Century, when a genuine black middle class began taking shape: Crabs in a bucket.

The Media Industry: Of Mules, Men, and Old Fashioned Patriarchy

This phrase, with the ring of a Zora Neale Hurston parable, is still used by blacks to describe the unfortunate dynamic of strivers who are undermined, held back or otherwise sabotaged by “their own” as they seek to better their lives. The imagery of two or more crustaceans trapped in the base of a bucket and desperately yanking the limbs of their brethren who are attempting to scramble up and out of the bucket is a good analogy for what has gone on in news organizations during the past decade, as resources have diminished and fewer and fewer leadership positions at prestige outlets open up.

The Crabs in a Bucket or Barrel syndrome, illustrated

In the context of The New York Times — unmistakably the nation’s leading news outlet in terms of its ability to influence political and consumer opinion — “crabs in a bucket” may appear at first blush a low brow metaphor that fails to capture the complex nuances of an elite organization where resources are still robust enough to provide upper-middle class incomes. Yes, it was news to many civilians that Keller, Abramson, and presumably Baquet, too, receive salaries in the $500k per year range.

That Abramson reportedly asked — appropriately — to be paid the same as her predecessor in the Executive Editor role, and that her Ask is said to have upset Sulzburger, is causing some women pundits out here to go all in on the familiar story of how Women Can’t Get a Break (and, with the exception of Rebecca Traister, what most of these writers mean is, “White Women Can’t Get a Break.” From my perspective, the principle of Abramson’s effort to close the gap is important and laudable — even as it raises questions about the wider field of salary ranges within the media industry, a sector that has lost big market-share and revenue since at least the late 1990s. I daresay that with few exceptions, most black women still hanging on in the industry would look at Abramson’s salary range and believe it was very do-able indeed.)

I’m not suggesting that Baquet had attempted to grab Abramson down from her perch as Executive Editor; I am not a Times “insider,” but I am familiar with high-stakes jockeying in institutions such as the Times. It actually could have cut both ways, in this regard: Two well-matched professionals who didn’t mesh particularly well personality-wise, who both engaged in covert actions designed to monkey-wrench their opponent’s chances for success. Abramson’s reported attempt to hire a “co-managing editor” who would have been installed next to Baquet, the ME, without Baquet’s or Sulzburger’s approval, sure sounds to me like an act of sabotage.

Despite all the “known unknowns,” I have a couple of key concerns about this situation.

One is how it is being discussed: As Richard Prince — the only full-time, national media watcher who focuses on race, class and gender topics — has observed, the ensuing high volume protests that Abramson was the victim of gender bias does have the effect of overshadowing Baquet’s accomplishments, and the historic significance of his ascension. Obviously, in a better world, there would be equal representation of women and men of all “non-traditional” demographic populations and economic backgrounds at the top of mastheads and in the owner’s suites across the media industry at this point in time. Yet, as a colleague in New York observed recently, here we are in 2014, and The New York Times has stepped into a minefield of bad PR that is essentially the outcome of its own historic Failure to Diversify. My colleague, a Media Pro in Brooklyn who is black, recently posted this on Facebook:

If you are an “iconic” institution and have been in existence since the 1800s, and 2011 is the first time you appointed a woman to the top level position, and 2014 is the first time you appointed a Black person to the top level position, you ought not to boast about that. [How’s that for a runon sentence?]….

I’m making a point about hypocrisy and irony. This is not a post in support of Jill Abramson and her unequal pay issue. BUUT….Jill has enjoyed a great career in her privileged shoes. (I wonder what Baquet was making. Was his pay equal to his profession equals?)aaaaaaaaaaaa Jill will no doubt land somewhere else and/or write a book and won’t have to grovel to get it published by a major publisher.

Sometimes people (all gender, all shapes, sizes, hues) get the boot because they are unpleasant, obnoxious and not worth the aggravation. But it is messed up if she was making less. It is also messed up if what is reported is true, that she did not consult with Baquet about her choice for his co-deputy. That is a classic undermining tactic in the workplace and women engage in that BS as much as men.

Live by the sword, die by the sword. What comes around, goes around and comeuppance and all of those truisms that make the point.

Now, to be clear, I don’t share the frisson of schadenfreude that exists between the lines in the final graph of this post. I worked in the news business for a dozen years, and, as I mentioned, have covered demographic issues in the industry. More directly, I have worked with excellent and crappy editors and producers and publishers who were men or women, and black or white. The defining characteristic of a Good or Great Newsroom Leader, from my perspective, is one who is inherently self-secure — which is related to but different than ‘self-confident’ — who is fair-minded, thoughtful, respectful of colleagues in all their variations; visionary, and above all courageous.

Your “First” Does Not Trump My “First”

But it really does matter (in a positive sense, one hopes), that Baquet is now the first black Executive Editor of The Times. Acknowledging this fact does not diminish the importance of Jill Abramson’s “first:” It indeed matters a lot that Abramson was the first woman EE — and that she was sacked so unceremoniously after being (reportedly) subjected to gender biases and double standards that by now should be neutralized, particularly in ostensibly “progressive” organizations. I’ve said this before in similar contexts, about other race and gender upsets to strike the news industry in the past two decades: My orientation is toward egalitarianism in society and in workplaces, having grown up in a town and during a time when the zeitgeist overwhelmingly demanded compassion, integrity, and fair-mindedness. Those days are gone.

It is actually a source of major psychic trauma for me to see the news business and related mass communications sectors continuously fail to implement systems and sensibilities that ameliorate race, class, and gender biases. I am aware that such limitations exist across the nation’s corporate landscape. Yet, whether Legacy brands or digital start-ups, it is sadly quite hypocritical for news organizations in 2014 to continuously fail at deep-tissue inclusion. In spite of the late-breaking onset of “user generated” content and “user engagement” initiatives — by another phrase, News organizations are now expected to incorporate consumer interests, preferences and voices into their coverage schemes — the fact that America’s population is now nearly majority-minority has not been reflected in the demographics of news-gathering organizations.

And black women communications and media practitioners, it must be said, have been jettisoned faster and with less empathy than any other segment of the thousands of journalists shed due to economic shrinking in the past decade: We are widely viewed — at least by the white guys in power — as not “digital native” or capable of adapting quickly or sufficiently enough to meet the challenge of the moment. This is of course a lie, but it is embedded deeply in the belief system of those who hold power over new and Legacy news organizations….white guys.

So, to my second and more serious concern: The Larger Story made evident from the Abramson situation is the on-going systematic exclusion of women and practitioners of color from the C-suites and power positions in the American news business. Of course there has been some progress compared to when I first entered newsrooms in the 1980s. But it also is obvious that things have not progressed far and fast enough, in this, the digital age. This means that anyone who isn’t already hooked up in well-paying jobs by their families or their networks or what have you — which is to say, yes, mostly everyone who isn’t a well-educated white guy — is very likely to see the bottom of the proverbial Washington, D.C. bus at some juncture.

White Male Tribalism Trumps Race, Gender “Firsts” Every Time

The most troubling truth to emerge from the Abramson firing is this: White males still hold all the cards at these outfits. They can and do fuck up, make or lose tons of money or awards, and shuffle the employee-cards in the deck at will. There is no accountability, no checks and balances, no major authority to force genuine change. Arthur Sulzburger, Jr., scion of the nation’s leading family-owned news organization, is undoubtedly a thoughtful and fair-minded individual.

Even so, there is no guarantee that Sulzburger is immune from the same subconscious biases and preferences that befall most of us at least some of the time — and particularly when under heavy pressure. Male corporate chiefs who are brave enough to select a “difficult” woman leader over a “likeable” male leader tend to be in short supply.

Until there is a fundamental cultural shift in the corporate world in general, and in the evolving media sector in particular, the crabs in the workforce buckets are destined to be cracked open, used up, their shells eventually tossed aside with the rest of the dinner leavings.

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Updated, 7:40 p.m., EST, 5/18/14:

Today reporters at Politico and at The New Yorker posted new information on this situation.

The internal negotiations between Abramson over the hiring of Janine Gibson, a top editor at The Guardian who was under consideration for a “co-managing editor post” that would have installed alongside Dean Baquet, were apparently the crux of Sulzburger’s loss of faith in Abramson as Executive Editor.

This is actually pretty fascinating: It may hint at nothing more than a basic miscommunication — Abramson apparently told Sulzburger that she had informed Baquet of her plan to bring Gibson on has his ‘co-managing editor,’ while Baquet insists that he only learned of the plan from Gibson during an introductory lunch early this month. Sulzburger apparently believed that Abramson had informed Baquet of the plan, since she had indicated it “in e-mail and in person” to him.

As it is widely believed that the working relationship between Abramson and Baquet has been fraught for some time, it would seem particularly underhanded (at the worst) or careless (at best) if Abramson failed to inform Baquet of her plan to hire Gibson. If it is accurate that Abramson was attempting to install a friendly white woman ally in a position that could be viewed as undermining Baquet, that raises questions about not just gender and race but also about entitlement.

Stay tuned…..

UPDATED, 10 p.m., EST, 5/17/14:

As I was writing this on 5/17, Arthur Sulzburger, Jr., issued another statement about the release of Jill Abramson. Media columnist Jim Romenesko has it here. In a nutshell, Sulzburger reiterates his statements from earlier this week that Abramson’s gender did not negatively impact her pay as Executive Editor, nor did it influence his decision to let her go.