Jill Abramson Is a Pushy Broad

Lena Dunham talks to former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson about getting fired, supporting young journalists, and the sign outside her door that says "Push."

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When Jill Abramson was fired from her job as executive editor of the New York Times in the fall of 2014, my Twitter feed lit up. Accusations of institutional sexism (she was the first woman to hold the position) mingled with gossipy whispers about Abramson's management style. The incestuous New York media world was entirely consumed by the details — and fictions — of her exit. A picture of her emerged shortly thereafter on her daughter's Instagram of Abramson in boxing gloves, and it read like a war cry for women who were fucking over it.

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While my tendency is and always has been to side with a damsel in any form of distress, I wanted to double-check my supportive reaction. After all, women can fuck things up too. And so I did what I always did, from March 2010, when we met, until his death five years later: I "pinged" David Carr (his word, not mine) with an email titled "how should I feel about this Jill Abramson thing?" David, the Times' media columnist, was strong, fair, honest, remarkably free of prejudice, and incredibly focused on the quality of the work rather than the identity of the worker. And he was committed to the paper above all else, its health and well-being and integrity. I knew his answer would be both layered and clarifying. A few minutes later, I was pinged back:

"you should feel bad about it and a little scared for our shop. we always manage to mangle success.

even if you accept jill was a handful -- not to me and a lot of the people I like at the paper -- still doesn't scan.

ie … business was good, journalism was good, culture was tough.

all the editors of the paper … become monsters and she was an incredibly effective one. a great, forgive me, newsman.

and regardless, did she deserve to be dragged out into the public square and be stoned to death for being a bitch?

hell no."

And there you have it.

But Jill, a veteran reporter and editor, a mother of three grown children, refused to have her success mangled. She refused to have her narrative bought and sold. She even refused to allow a narrative of misogyny to define her firing from the Times.

A few weeks ago we sat together in her Tribeca loft, drinking chai as Leonard Cohen blasted from her back bedroom. In the middle of snowstorm Stella she wore black rain boots so big they made her look like a child playing dress-up and a red sweatshirt bearing the words "Nevertheless, she persisted." Jill doesn't ask easy questions, and she doesn't offer simple answers. It was all you could hope for from the woman who shattered the glass ceiling then picked up the pieces with her bare hands.

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Lena Dunham: I barely know where to start, because when I first thought about interviewing you it was all about your career as a journalist, and I'm now like, Can you make sense of the world for us, Jill? You've had so many different jobs, and you're now working as a teacher and political columnist for the Guardian. Will you describe your current life, day-to-day situation?

Jill Abramson: Sure. During the week, I'm a senior lecturer at Harvard, an actual faculty member. Since I went there as an undergraduate, it doesn't seem real to me that I am, but somehow I am. That's the base, work-wise. Life-wise, I'm in Boston Monday through Friday. I live with my daughter and her husband, who are both surgeons at [Massachusetts General]. I don't see much of them, because they work 80 hours a week, each of them. They have an adorable seventeen-month-old baby named Eloise, and our rooms are right next door to each other. I'm kind of her person during the week.

LD: You're making it possible for your daughter to have it all.

JA: [Laughs.] I guess. She may regret having this much on her plate, but she's saving lives while I'm making baby oatmeal.

LD: That's amazing. You're also finishing a book. Where are you finding the time to do that?

JA: I do that in very concentrated doses. A lot of times, I get up pretty early, at around six, six-thirty. Eloise is a lounger. She often doesn't wake up till ten, ten-thirty, pretty crazy. She likes her food, and she likes her sleep.

LD: You described the book to me when I first met you as an examination of modern media companies.

JA: It's how they made it through the past decade of digital revolution, and who figured it out the best, who caught on, and how basically all four of the places I'm writing about are trying to make quality journalism and quality information actually be valued in our society.

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LD: Obviously, you were the executive editor of the New York Times. How long ago was it that you stopped doing that job?

JA: I was fired in May of 2014.

LD: I've always really admired how much you like to say "I was fired." Because I feel like so many people go "I left" or "We parted ways." What is it that's empowering to you about just saying "I was fired"?

JA: I find that it is a liberating thing for other women, especially younger women, who have told me that. It's the truth. I've devoted my life to words and their meaning, and so why not? If you use some euphemism, people are left wondering, What happened?

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LD: You held the kinds of positions people spend their whole lives dreaming of — you were the Washington bureau chief at the Times, you were managing editor — and no one ever thinks they're going to be executive editor of the New York Times. Unless: did you think you were going to be the executive editor?

JA: Oh, no. My students at Harvard find it very comforting that I actually had no idea what I was going to do when I got out of college.

LD: How did you figure out that journalism, and the pursuit of honest information and how we manage that information, was your life's calling?

JA: Watergate. I was a freshman at Harvard when the hearings began, and I listened to them on a transistor radio while I was studying for exams. I would go and buy days-old copies of the physical Washington Post to read Woodward and Bernstein's stories. It was amazing to me that a newspaper could hold a president accountable and keep his feet to the fire. When Nixon resigned, that was a happy day. I think I would never have seen how I could do it. The only journalism experience I had at that point is I had been a stringer for Time magazine my sophomore through senior years at Harvard. Mainly the job consisted of, for the three years, calling up Professor John Kenneth Galbraith and asking him, was the West in decline? It got to be "Hi. Hi Ken, it's Jill. Is the West in decline?"

LD: Fast-forward a few decades, and you're the first female executive editor of the Times. When that started, did you have any reservations about that job?

JA: I had some reservations about it, because as managing editor, I worked so closely with Bill Keller, who was the executive editor before me. I could see over time that more and more of his time was taken away from stories and talking to reporters about the news, which is what we both loved to do. He was always in meetings upstairs in the Times building with the business side, because the business model was becoming so stressed. One of the moves that happened in the later stages of Bill's tenure was the decision to go to the digital subscription model, which was, in real time, a very risky thing to do, because everyone said everything on the Internet has to be free. It was fraught, it took a lot of work. He was very occupied with things related to that. It's like being work husband and work wife. He would vent to me about how hard that was, and sometimes unpleasant. I knew he didn't love all aspects of the job.

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LD: But it's also not really the kind of job you say no to.

JA: I definitely felt, I got to take my shot.

LD: Did you feel a pressure going in, as the first woman having done this job?

JA: I did. I felt like, I can't let the team down, the girls down.

LD: I remember David Carr telling me this when I emailed him and I just said, "I love Jill Abramson, what the fuck happened?" He said to me that you had a real reputation within that building for supporting younger women, for bringing them along with you. I wondered how you thought about that, and how you formed that, and whether you had had an example in your life of someone doing that for you.

JA: I'm tempted to repeat what got Madeleine Albright in such trouble during the campaign. I think there is a special place in hell reserved for women who don't help other women.

LD: I do too.

JA: Yeah. Plus, I identified a lot with younger women who were just trying to make their mark in journalism and at the Times. They're fun. They're fun to talk to and brainstorm with.

LD: I was recently doing a bunch of interviews with female comedians. I noticed this really specific divide, which is women under 35 went, "I've been so taken care of by women older than me, I can't believe how much love I've gotten, and been ushered along by women who have experiences that I didn't." Women over 35 went, "No, I was treated like a threat, they felt like there was only room in this town for one of us. It was a complete rarity when women reached out a hand." I wondered what your experience was as you were making your way up to that job.

JA: My experience was completely different from everybody else's. I never worked for a woman supervisor or boss, except my very first job, which was in the Boston bureau of Time. My boss was the coolest woman. She had been the secretary of the editor in chief of Time, and she had clawed her way out of the secretarial pool into another pink ghetto, the research pool.

Then she became one of the first women correspondents, and then first woman bureau chief. That's when I met her. She spent so much time teaching me the ropes, which I didn't know. She would invite me to dinner parties at her house, and sometimes she'd have an interesting person come to the bureau, and she always included me.

LD: It seems like women go, in their careers — and I'm speaking in generalizations here — from being the naïve young thing, and then suddenly they're in a position of power, and they're treated like some sort of terrifying bitch entity. I wondered if you experienced that.

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JA: Right, that's what happens at the end when you get the boss job.

LD: Did you feel like you were cast into that role?

JA: Yeah, definitely. That's why outside my front door there's a little brass plate that says "Push." Pushy was branded on me. Maureen Dowd actually gave me the "push."

LD: Did you feel, the way you were supporting other women at the Times, did you feel supported by other women?

JA: Yeah, I did. Not all of them. I'm not going to say everyone at the Times was wild about me. I've always been told, throughout my career, that people find me scary. I don't see it myself, but my kids think that's hilarious.

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LD: Where do you think it comes from?

JA: I'm very direct, and I always have been.

LD: You write a great one-line email, which I'm always impressed by. My emails are this cacophony of apologies, and yours are just like "Yes. No. Works. Doesn't." Do you feel as though that directness is the thing that casts you in that particular light?

JA: Maybe it contributes to it. Being an investigative reporter maybe added to it. Especially when you get to be managing editor, executive editor, [some of my employees needed] a lot of praise and encouragement, and I think maybe I became too stingy with that, and that added to weighing more on the intimidating side. Anyway, I was very bad at office politics. Also, I didn't really love the managing side of these jobs. I didn't build my team well. When trouble hit, I didn't have much support. I had support among the proletariat, but not the top brass.

LD: When you were fired by the Times, I remember your daughter put that picture of you up in boxing gloves. I remember looking at it with my friends and going, "What a rad fucking bitch."

JA: You can go visit Jean, my former trainer, just two blocks away.

LD: Amazing. When that all went down, did you feel like you had a duty to represent clearly what had happened?

JA: I didn't. I felt like, I just have to not be mowed down. There were New York Post photographers and reporters outside. The one thing I did that I'd recommend to anybody who's going to get a lot of press attention, I had two of my best friends read everything first, then tell me what to read. That helped. I didn't really have time to think about anything other than getting through those days. I was scheduled to do a commencement address at Wake Forest, I think ten days after I was fired. The president of Wake Forest thought I was going to cancel. I said I wouldn't do that. There were over 230 reporters who got press credentials and came to North Carolina. It was so nutty, so nutty.

LD: One, why the obsession with your exit? And two, what did it feel like to, after a life of journalism, have that turned around on you?

JA: I always had been very mindful that if you're going to dish it out, you better take it. I was polite to the people outside the door. I'd done creepy things like stake out Monica Lewinsky. I wasn't going to be all sensitive, but I wasn't doing interviews. The Wake Forest thing was the first time it would be "Jill speaks!"

LD: Did it change your mind at all about things like staking out Monica Lewinsky?

JA: No, I always felt pretty creepy doing that. But I probably would do it again. I haven't done anything that loathsome for my column, but when I want something as a reporter, I sink pretty low to get it.

LD: God. Why is that such an admirable quality to me? Why does that get me going so much?

JA: Because it's fun. It's fun to see if you can get it.

LD: Copy at the expense of all is the most glamorous thing, I think, to every female writer.

JA: I admire, now, Andrea Mitchell. Some people would say, "Oh, it's so humiliating, she has to shout, and then she gets escorted out of places now that Trump's in." I say, "Wow, she's still—"

LD: She's still at it.

JA: Right. She wants to get on the news that night.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Lena Dunham is actually working toward being called pushy.

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