Former New York Times editor Jill Abramson tells grads she will continue in journalism

05/19/2014 10:55 AM

05/19/2014 12:48 PM

In her first public remarks since her abrupt dismissal as executive editor of The New York Times, Jill Abramson told Wake Forest University graduates Monday that she doesn't know what she will do next, “so I’m in exactly the same boat as many of you.”

Removed Wednesday from the top news job at the nation’s foremost newspaper in a move that touched off discussions about gender equity and modern management style, Abramson discarded her prepared speech, “The Importance of a Truly Free Press,” and focused instead on the theme of resilience – personal and professional.

Abramson said her sister called the day after her termination and told her that their father would be just as proud of her in watching her deal with her firing as he would be by her leadership at the Times. “Show us what you are made of, he would say,” Abramson told the university’s 1,880 graduates.

“Some of you – and now I’m talking to anyone who’s been dumped, not gotten the job you really wanted or received those horrible rejection letters from grad school – you know the sting of losing or not getting something you badly want. When that happens, show what you are made of.”

Robes and sneakers

Abramson, 60, found herself in the role of newsmaker rather than journalist Monday and appeared comfortable with the reversal. She smiled and nodded for a scrum of photographers as she approached the podium in the commencement procession, blue jeans and sneakers peeking out beneath her ceremonial robe.

She was introduced by Al Hunt Jr., a political columnist for Bloomberg View and a 1965 Wake Forest graduate. He described Abramson as a demanding editor and “absolutely fearless.”

Abramson was the newspaper’s first female executive editor, one of the paramount positions in American media. She served as the paper’s Washington bureau chief and managing editor before assuming the top role in 2011.

Early in her career, after graduating from Harvard, Abramson tried out for a reporting job at The Charlotte Observer but flunked the tryout, which involved covering a swim meet, she said in an address at Davidson College in 2012.

In the wake of her firing, competing narratives emerged in the New York media: from defenders, that her sometimes brusque style would be tolerated if she were a male; and from Times management, that she had lost the support of key executives.

Addressing the controversy over the weekend, Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. issued a statement clarifying his reasons for the firing. “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,” Sulzberger said.

Finding a new role

Monday was Abramson’s turn to talk, and she took the high road in her address, which ended with a standing ovation. Of the Times, she said, “It was the honor of my life to lead the newsroom.”

She said the overall work of journalism helps keep democracy resilient, and she intends to continue in the profession in a yet-to-be-determined role.

Abramson is known to have at least two tattoos, one of them the Times old English T corporate logo. She said she was asked Sunday night by some Wake Forest students whether she would have it removed.

“Not a chance!” she told graduates.

Abramson said the only hesitation she had about keeping her speaking appointment, announced in March, was that the “small media circus following me would detract attention away from you. What total knockouts you are.”

After the ceremony, the former editor declined to speak to reporters, including Times media reporter Ravi Somaiya.

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