Jill Abramson becomes the next executive editor of the New York Times.

Media criticism.
June 2 2011 6:46 PM

Jill Abramson: Built Truck Tough

An excellent, if unsurprising, choice for executive editor of the New York Times.

Jill Abramson. Click to expand image.
Jill Abramson

How tough is Jill Abramson? In 2007, she was hit by a truck at Seventh Avenue and 44th Street. Oh, she broke her femur and fractured her hip and spent three weeks in Bellevue Hospital. But you shoulda seen the damage to the truck. 

Her appointment to the executive editorship of the New York Times, announced Thursday and effective in September, makes great sense. The Times is a place where truck-size egos constantly careen past newsroom cubicles and down the aisles, so her superheroine powers as both immovable object and unstoppable force will come handy.

If not for her superpowers, she'd still be a good pick for the job. She's an excellent investigative reporter and said to be a fine editor and a good manager by those who've worked with her. She's understudied for one of the best, Bill Keller. Plus, she possesses a dandy résumé (American Lawyer, Legal Times, Wall Street Journal, and various books, including a forthcoming volume about her puppy).

The only station of the cross that all other contemporary New York Times executive editors have visited, but that Abramson has not, is that of foreign correspondent. Predecessor Bill Keller famously reported from Moscow and Johannesburg. Howell Raines got his ticket punched in London; Joseph Lelyveld served the Times in London, New Delhi, Hong Kong, Johannesburg, and God knows where else; Max Frankel covered Moscow and the Caribbean; and A.M. Rosenthal distinguished himself in New Delhi and Warsaw.

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As Abramson takes the top job, her second in command as managing editor for news will be the universally adored Dean Baquet, who also hasn't done time as a foreign correspondent. Their deficiencies should cause little distress: As much as I may esteem foreign correspondents, I don't fetishize. If the 113 "foreign desk" pieces written over 17 months credited to Howell Raines in Nexis helped qualify him for the job, I guess we can give Abramson and Baquet papal dispensations.

If only to increase the velocity of this column, I'd love to share some dirt about Abramson, but in all of my dealings with her, personal and professional, I've found her to be plumb-line straight. Personal: We used the same suburban Metro stop for a time, we were on a Shorenstein panel together a few years ago, and we've run into each other now and again at social events. Professional: In 2008, I contacted Abramson after discovering an instance of plagiarism by a Times foreign correspondent and she investigated. Unlike other editors, she didn't try to use a label other than plagiarism for what the Times reporter had done. I don't think she deserves a halo for standing up for journalism over an employee, but she earned even more of my respect.

Being the executive editor of the New York Times is sort of like being president—only better. You get to live in New York in comfort. All the preening assholes kiss yours. You've got all of this power, but you mustn't use all of it unless you want the planet to self-incinerate. You get to hire the best people. (The downside is all of them are gunning for your job.) The job is only as ceremonial as you want it to be. You get to fight Rupert Murdoch hand-to-hand. In any match between Rupert and Jill, I'll be putting my money on Jill.

Abramson won't have to be as tough as much as smart. Aspiring executive editors elbow their way to the job, as Gabriel Sherman wrote last September in New York. (Great throwaway line in that piece: Bill Keller tells Sherman that the succession question won't be decided anytime soon. Depends, I guess, on your definition of "soon.") But once they become executive editor—as Howell Raines never learned—they're supposed to remove the razor blades from their elbows and keep the talent from injuring one another. Would Raines have been a better executive editor if he had worked as managing editor first, as Keller and Lelyveld did? Nah, but it's nice to think so.

Abramson takes the handoff from a great editor and reporter—and an accomplished Twitter-hater. Bill Keller made the right calls when confronted with the toughest editorial questions: Should he publish the NSA story, the Swift banking surveillance story, and the various WikiLeaks packages? Should he publish a mea culpa for the shortcomings in the Times' pre-Iraq War coverage? How much support should he lend to the disgraced Judith Miller in her refusal to be deposed in the Plame affair? For a great overview of Keller's mid-decade trials and tribulations, see this 2006 New Yorkfeature by Joe Hagan.

I'm reluctant to give Keller too much credit for demystifying the Times because I've been unable to document how much of the glasnost that washed through the place during his eight-year tenure was his doing. But there is a lot to admire. The public-editor slot, depending on your point of view, has given the newspaper and its editor hell or has covered up for him since the mighty Daniel Okrent first took the position in 2003. Like or hate the public editor, such a position would never have flown in the Rosenthal or Raines eras. Keller instituted semi-annual "Throw Stuff at Bill" gripe sessions with his staff. (Had Raines done the same, paperweights, daggers, and grenades would have filled the air.) "Talk to the Times" has sought to give readers a chance to grill newsroom heavyweights. More than any previous Times editor, Keller engaged his critics directly, making the paper more human, more vulnerable, and in my reading, better.

But this is supposed to be a column about Abramson. Back in your cage, Keller.

Much is being made today about the fact that a woman has finally become the editor of the Times. Excuse me for not leading a parade or throwing confetti skyward or using Abramson's rise as an opportunity to cut and paste from Nan Robertson's The Girls in the Balcony: Women, Men, and the New York Times to remind people of how poorly the news profession (and other professions) have treated women. A worthy topic, but I'm all genuflected out on this one. I think of Abramson's promotion as a victory for journalism before I think of it as a victory for women. When Baquet takes over in several years after Abramson steps down, making him the first African-American executive editor of the Times, I'm sure I'll have parallel thoughts.

I don't have any advice for Abramson or Baquet aside from quoting something Keller told Hagan in 2006. Of the executive editor, Keller said:

You are dependent on this huge reservoir of talent, and your job is to create the circumstances under which they can do their best work, to reward them when they do well, correct them when they do wrong, set some guidelines, and spur their ambitions. But it's not about me.

******

Has my column been taken over by Opus Dei? Stations of the Cross … dispensations … genuflections. Send blessings via email to slate.pressbox@gmail.com and receive them via my Twitter feed. (Email may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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