The Magazine

As the Times Turns

May 26, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 35 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Far be it from The Scrapbook to know why Jill Abramson was fired, after three short years, as executive editor of the New York Times. Or to care why she was fired. 

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Thus far, there are two explanations for her abrupt dismissal. The first—that she had tried to hire a co-deputy editor without consulting her existing deputy editor—is the sort of bureaucratic tempest that means nothing to anyone outside the Times newsroom. But the second—that she had been complaining about her $500,000-plus annual salary—merely confirms the existence of the bubble where celebrity journalists reside. If, at such princely rates, Jill Abramson becomes a martyr in the movement for pay equity, the estrangement between mainstream journalism and ordinary American life will be nearly complete.

Which is too bad. Yet the Abramson Affair also demonstrates the extent to which institutions such as the New York Times seem to matter less and less in journalism. A quick survey of the “reporting” about Jill Abramson’s firing turns up speculative essays by journalists who cover journalism interviewing one another about how the fate of one journalist will affect other journalists. If this variety of incestuous prose bores the large majority of Americans who are not journalists, The Scrapbook would not be surprised.

What does surprise The Scrapbook, however, is the infinite patience of the Sulzberger clan with the current Times publisher and chairman, Arthur O. “Pinch” Sulzberger Jr., in charge since 1997. The world of publishing and, especially, newspapers has undergone a revolution since the rise of the Internet, and the New York Times Company has been caught consistently flat-footed. Not only has Pinch presided over a series of financial and strategic disasters since inheriting the mantle from his father, Arthur O. “Punch” Sulzberger Sr., but his revolving-door sequence of executive editors reminds The Scrapbook of a volatile professional sports team owner. 

Indeed, The Scrapbook detects a pattern. In 1997, when Sulzberger became publisher, the executive editor was Joseph Lelyveld, a onetime foreign correspondent regarded as a Nice Guy. Lelyveld was succeeded by the tempestuous Howell Raines (2001), who self--destructed after two years and was replaced by Bill Keller (2003), another newsroom Nice Guy. Then came Jill Abramson (2011), whose primary claim to fame had been a hostile biography of Justice Clarence Thomas, coauthored with a New Yorker writer, and a famously rude, brusque, and overbearing manner. Now that Abramson has fallen, she has been replaced by one Dean Baquet, yet another newsroom Nice Guy of no particular distinction.

This curious good cop/bad cop routine has not served the Times well, and might even have contributed to its diminishing influence. Moreover, if the Nice Guy/SOB tradition holds, it can only mean one thing: Once Dean Baquet falters, in two or three years, his obvious successor would have to be .  .  . Paul Krugman.

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