NEW YORK — During her commencement address at Wake Forest University on Monday morning, Jill Abramson, the former New York Times executive editor unceremoniously fired last week, told graduates about the future of her now-famous tattoo.
“A couple of students who I was talking to last night after I arrived, they know that I have some tattoos,” she said to thousands gathered at the university’s lawn on Hearn Plaza, the heart of the campus in Winston-Salem, N.C. “And one of them asked me, are you going to get the Times ‘T’ that you have tattooed on your back removed?
“Not a chance,” she said.
It was the first time Ms. Abramson, the first woman appointed to lead the storied newsroom in the paper’s 162-year history, spoke publicly about her former employer since her abrupt ouster last week, generating a maelstrom of controversy over charges of sexism, unequal pay, and unfair treatment of females in high level positions – charges the Times continues to deny.
“Sure, losing a job you love hurts, but the work I revere — journalism that holds powerful institutions and people accountable — is what makes our democracy so resilient,” Abramson said. “This is the work I will remain very much a part of.”
The former executive editor, who told graduates it was “the honor of my life to lead the newsroom,” reportedly signed a non-disparagement agreement with her former employer as part of her severance. But she alluded to the context of sexism, mentioning Katherine Graham, the late publisher of the Washington Post, and Nan Robinson, a groundbreaking female journalist with Times, and describing them as her “heroes.”
“They both faced discrimination in a much tougher, male-dominated newspaper industry, and they went on to win Pulitzer Prizes,” the industry’s highest honor, she said.
Abramson also brought up Anita Hill, the professor of law at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., who became a national figure in 1991 when she accused then-US Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Facing an all-white and all-male judiciary committee, she was called “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty,” she recalled to the Wake Forest audience.
Last Wednesday, Abramson was fired by Times publisher and owner Arthur Sulzberger, who cited “management issues” with her leadership, which the paper said was “mercurial” and “divisive.” On Saturday, the paper gave additional information about her dismissal, saying she failed to communicate with her staff about her decisions.
“During her tenure, I heard repeatedly from her newsroom colleagues, women and men, about a series of issues, including arbitrary decision-making, a failure to consult and bring colleagues with her, inadequate communication, and the public mistreatment of colleagues,” Mr. Sulzberger said in the statement.
But critics continue to rail against her unceremonious dismissal for reasons they say would never happen to a male in her position. Sulzberger told the staff last Wednesday that the decision to oust Abramson was “not about the quality of our journalism” or “any disagreement over the direction of our digital future.”
And in less than three years under her watch, the New York Times won eight Pulitzer Prizes, including four in 2013 – the most since the paper won five in 2002, after its coverage of 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan. Revenues and subscriptions were also up for the first time in years during her leadership of the newsroom.
Such bottom-line success, many women say, would not only trump the kind of personal issues cited by Sulzberger in most any industry, they are actually the hard-nosed leadership traits that are seen as attributes of successful men.
“Women have to prove themselves every day,” writes retired Col. Jill Morgenthaler, the first woman battalion commander in the Army’s 88th Division, in Quartz, recalling the discrimination she faced as she rose through the ranks. “When a man states bluntly what he thinks, he is praised for being direct. When a woman states bluntly what she thinks, she is called brusque. When a man asks for a raise, he is praised for his assertiveness. When a woman asks for a raise, she is difficult to work with. When a man shares his ideas, he is creative. When a woman does, she is pushy.”
But Abramson still praised the newspaper she said was “irreplaceable.”
“You know, New York Times journalists risk their lives frequently to bring you the best news report in the world,” she said during her commencement address. “That’s why it’s such an important and irreplaceable institution, and it was the honor of my life to lead the newsroom.”
She urged graduates who “know the sting of losing or not getting something you badly want” to “show what you are made of.”
“What’s next for me? I don’t know,” she said. “So I’m in exactly the same boat as many of you. And like you, I’m a little scared, but also excited.”