Say it Ain’t So, Jill

I’m a millennial writer, and I’m mad as hell about Jill Abramson.

For young female journalists, the fall of Jill Abramson was especially hard to watch.

By Kate Wehr

The same year I graduated from journalism school, Jill Abramson took the top editorial slot at the New York Times, shattering the glass ceiling for aspiring female journalists in American print media. I don’t know whether or not Abramson realized she had assumed role-model status for millennial women like me, but she had.

It’s a feeling shared by quite a few of my peers. “Of course I was excited to see a woman lead one of the country’s most esteemed newspapers,” classmate Erin Timrawi, of Las Vegas, told me, adding that although irritation at the Times paywall had prevented her from following Abramson’s career more closely, she still remembered reading some of the legendary editor’s post-Times work. “I was surprised to see an article written by her appear in a travel magazine a few months after she had been fired. I connected with her writing and thought she would land on her feet as a freelancer and future memoir writer.”

The hope Abramson’s accomplishment had given younger women climbing newsroom ladders nationwide only served to make her fall more devastating when reports broke that she had been accused of failing to properly attribute the work of other writers in her bid to produce Merchants of Truth, a would-be comprehensive look at the future of American news. It’s more than 500 pages comparing two print standbys, The New York Times and the Washington Post, with Vice and Buzzfeed, both catchy web content businesses that more or less stumbled their way into serious reporting.

In a shocking Rolling Stone interview with one of the reporters whose work she’d allegedly poached, Jake Malooley, Abramson maintained that her intentions were all that mattered, and since she had not deliberately stolen his work, it followed that she had not truly done anything wrong.

Hadn’t she? For one of the most famous editors in the country to downplay alleged plagiarism — widely recognized within the industry as one of the worst possible journalistic sins — as a problem of approach, not conduct, is a breathtakingly entitled sweep. Writer after writer has now come forward with side-by-side comparisons of lifted language, reporting errors, and mischaracterizations. Waving all of them off with mumblings of “intent” as defense is a clear failure to recognize that regardless of her motivations, damage has been done. That this happened in the course of promoting a book on media ethics, of all things, is absurdly ironic.

Abramson is far from the only case to emerge in recent months. In February, the romance novelsphere was rattled by reports that up-and-coming Brazilian author Cristiane Serruya had lifted distinctive paragraphs from genre bestsellers by Tessa Dare and Courtney Milan, setting Twitter afire under the hashtag, #copypastecris. Serruya blamed a ghostwriter.

German newspaper Der Spiegel faced international embarrassment in December when freelancer Juan Moreno, risking his own career, argued that its star reporter, Claas Relotius, had been fabricating his portion of a shared assignment covering the U.S. southern border. Relotius has since been fired; and his former employers have been stuck with the job of doing major damage control. “Moreno would go through three or four weeks of hell,” Spiegel editor Ullrich Fichtner wrote, “because his colleagues and senior editors in Hamburg didn’t initially believe that Relotius could be nothing more than a liar.”

The pressure on Moreno to stay quiet about his suspicions came down especially hard because independent writers do not enjoy the same privileges of job security and employer protection as hotshot staff reporters backed by large companies. He was, as the saying went, “‘only as good as his last story,’” Elisabeth Zerofsky wrote in The New Yorker.

With her tenure at the Times as her primary claim to fame, Abramson has taken full advantage of the same privilege that insulated Relotius for so long. None of those who have dared to call her out are on her level professionally. In her interviews about the controversy, she has yet to acknowledge that within a profession where women still battle to be taken seriously, being caught in a scandal over her journalistic integrity is a nasty setback that is disappointing for all women in news. Worse, she’s chosen to slam the journalists moving to fill her shoes.

One wonders exactly why she chose her big four to represent the present and future of American media instead of putting her critical gaze toward the echo chamber of FOX and the proliferation of “fake news” on social media, InfoWars, and YouTube. Are we supposed to accept Vice and Buzzfeed as the defining voices of our generation? I hope not. It’s consistent, though, with the emerging pictureof someone who appears comfortable describing young reporters as beneath her.

There are echoes of Abramson’s questionable excuses — she mixed up her notes, she forgot to attribute content, it was only a few citations anyway, why are we still bringing it up — in Ira Lightman’s investigation into rampant plagiarism among high-level poets. But while ethical distinctions in literature might be grayed by widespread intertextuality (basing a new work on an older one as a form of commentary), or by simplistic arguments that originality is an idealistic myth, where reporters are concerned, there is much less room for generous interpretation. Either sources are interviewed and facts checked, or not. It is asinine to suppose any editor of Abramson’s stature would not be well aware of the cultural and professional standards to which she was going to be held. At best, she might be called sloppy; at worst, she is demonstrably incompetent.

Abramson’s tenure at the Times was not without controversy. Her abrupt firing in 2014 was famously the stuff of widespread gossip. Though at the time she characterized her departure as having been triggered by a bold attempt to bring her salary up to par with her predecessor’s, a recounting disputed by her employer, she addresses it differently in Merchants of Truth, lending credence to publisher Arthur Sulzberger’s prior statements that she had left over a management battle.

Even before the plagiarism accusations, Abramson was fending off criticism for boasting that she felt no need to record interviews. She has refused so far to provide any detailed insight into her research or writing processes, raising the possibility that she delegated much of the actual responsibility to someone else. That she would be this careless in putting together the very book intended to preserve her journalistic legacy inevitably calls her entire body of work into question. As Lightman put it, nobody plagiarizes just once.

Abramson is in good company: Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Jonah Lehrer, and plenty of others have all faced their share of negative scrutiny over plagiarism allegations in their nonfiction works. Nevertheless, when most reporters are making peanuts in an industry fraught with massive layoffs, it’s infuriating to witness authors pulling in big paydays for simultaneously putting their names to stolen material and disdaining us and our Gen-Z counterparts as ill informed, disengaged, and unqualified.

The obnoxious abuse of platform isn’t merely insulting to the younger adults watching, though; it’s dangerous. An explosive report in late February outlined how easily 21-year-old Jacob Wohl had systematically managed to manipulate political rumors online. USA Today reported that Wohl, now banned from Twitter, was entirely unconcerned with whether or not his tweets were factual, only with the breadth of their reach:

In some ways, Wohl is simply carrying on the dubious American tradition of deceit in politics, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania . . . . The difference now, she said, is that the internet has democratized that deceit. It’s more difficult online to determine the source of a claim, a major factor in deciding whether to believe it.

The growing difficulty of discerning truth from fiction in the internet age is precisely why credible journalism is still so desperately needed, but we undermine ourselves at our peril when we stoop to cutting corners with stolen material and shilling falsehood as fact. Now that the President is openly calling journalists “enemies of the people” and shrugging off their murders, we can ill afford to fixate only on the bottom line.

Increased pressure from American publishers to release more content, faster, and to gauge story value by clicks, means the temptation for writers to fudge their submissions can only be expected to escalate. Jill Abramson is wrong. Our intentions are meaningless without our integrity. The journalism business is indeed changing at an incredible pace, but without upholding the inherent trust between writer and reader at all costs, we cannot hope to combat those seeking to silence the so-called “lamestream media” in favor of advancing fake news.

Kate Wehr is a writer in western Montana. Find her on Twitter at @anovelattitude

Production Details
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Last edited: March 17, 2019
Author: Kate Wehr
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik
Artwork: MSNBC