The day al-Qaeda’s hijackers slammed commercial jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Jill Abramson, the Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, was in make-or-break mode. For most of her career, she’d dazzled bosses, but in this job, she felt that the new man in charge up in New York was hostile and hoping to see her fail. Now, thanks to Osama bin Laden, Abramson, a taut, elfin woman who’d made her name in national journalism as a dogged investigator of federal corruption, was in the professional spotlight, covering the biggest and most intense story of her life.
“I always look back on the Washington bureau’s coverage of the attacks on September 11 as one of her finest hours,” says Times writer Carl Hulse, who worked for Abramson in D.C. “New York was the focus that day, of course, but Washington was in a bad, near-panic situation with the Pentagon attack, rumors flying and people really about to become unglued. In the bureau, we were covering not only the attack on the Pentagon itself but also the entire administration and congressional response—[and doing it] for a paper that was deep into its own coverage of the World Trade Center.
“It was really a handful, and we didn’t know what was coming next. But in the face of this disaster and our need to explain it, Jill kept calm, and her calm really infected everyone. In my recollection, she got calmer throughout the day and kept us together. We delivered a great report, and the day’s story list for the bureau, signed by all the people who worked on September 11, still hangs outside the bureau chief’s office.”
Ten years later, the new man in charge in New York is a woman. As executive editor—the top editorial job at the Times—Jill Abramson still plays it low-key, wearing her habitual subdued navy-and-white clothes and quiet gold jewelry. Standing in her glass-walled office on the third floor of the Times building, she is not so much physically dominating as undominated.
Abramson, now 58 and the first female leader of the nation’s paper of record, has a history of equanimity in the face of difficulty. She entered Harvard at a time when sightings of women in the residence dining hall were still rare. She worked as an investigative journalist in Washington, facing off against Cabinet members, congressmen, Supreme Court nominees and countless angry, red-faced lobbyists and lawyers, any one of whom would have liked to put her out of business. She survived an office-politics duel to the death.
Oh, and five years ago she was hit by a truck.
Now Abramson has taken on what is at once a great honor and a huge challenge: a barrier-busting move into the top spot of the premier organization in what many consider to be a dying—or at least deeply troubled—industry. It falls to her to figure out how to keep the Times relevant in the online-news world of Twitter, iReporters, citizen photographers, un-fact-checked bloggers and shameless aggregators. And while she has sometimes mused on when we might finally stop saying “first woman” whenever a female takes the helm, she does not discount the significance of this moment—her moment.
“It’s been hugely meaningful to me, the response that [my appointment] has sparked in both my colleagues here and even outside of the Times,” Abramson says. “I mean, some people I don’t even know told me they cried when they heard the news.”
Abramson’s newly elevated status comeswith a view—not of the Manhattan skyline but of other scribes’ cubicles. She has domesticated her office with a Persian rug and a plush couch, family and dog pictures and memorabilia she finds personally significant: a Yankee-autographed baseball; a photo of Robert Redford at his most beautiful; a postcard of the iconic image of Mrs. Robinson’s seductive leg in the foreground, young Benjamin Braddock in the background; Alfred Hitchcock in profile with a cigar; a collection of tiny plastic U.S. presidents.