Jill Abramson on the Challenge of Creating a Female 'Voice of Authority'

In 2006, Abramson wrote in More about how women can establish their power and authority, and challenge the "Daddy knows best hierarchies" of government, business and media. And click here for More's March 2012 profile of Abramson.

By Jill Abramson
jill abramson new york times image
Jill Abramson
Photograph: Fred Conrad, New York Times

As Couric takes her seat at the anchor desk of CBS Evening News, her correspondents and producers in the field will be flooding her with images of war, climatological cliff-hangers around the world and tales of an ugly partisan fight for control of Congress.

Couric will be scrutinized for how she handles the news. But viewers and critics will be paying close attention to other factors too: whether she dons the horn-rimmed glasses she sometimes wore on the Today show to project gravitas; if the anchor’s desk has been reconfigured to show off her legs; and whether Couric has adjusted the timbre of her voice and the wattage of her smile to the sweet spot on the spectrum between perky and powerful.

Couric joins hundreds of other women holding high-level jobs in the media, politics and the corporate world at a time when audiences (viewers, voters, shareholders) are getting used to hearing the news of the day and affairs of state delivered by a woman. But even as women wield increasing power, they—and we—still struggle with how that voice of authority should look and sound.

I know this dilemma firsthand. I’m 52, and I became the first woman managing editor of the New York Times after a string of other “firsts,’’ including serving as the Times’s first female bureau chief in Washington, D.C. I’ve been reporting on the intersection of gender and power—Anita Hill, Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice—since I started out as a political and investigative reporter in the 1970s. I know that acquiring authority as a woman is tough enough; using and projecting it is even more complicated. There are plenty of pitfalls and few good role models.

Couric’s deal was still in the negotiating stages when CBS chief Leslie Moonves proclaimed that the era of the “voice of God” anchor was dead. Since then, CBS has been trying to figure out exactly what era we’re in. Couric spent weeks traveling around the country this summer on a listening tour modeled on one taken by Clinton before her 2000 Senate campaign. It wasn’t just a publicity tour, but one designed to help Couric find her anchor’s voice. I agree with Moonves that the very notion of an Olympian voice of authority, in the mold of Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite, is passé. Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have built successful shows by puncturing the pompous, gas-filled television talking heads. Anderson Cooper’s emotive style may give Couric a wider emotional berth as well. The explosion of the Internet, with so many voices (many of them ideological), has also radically changed and democratized where people go for news and whom they view as an authority.

Journalists—including God himself, Walter Cronkite, in conversation with CNN’s Larry King—have also talked about whether Couric has the hard- news cred for the CBS Evening News job, one that involves setting an agenda and leading a staff. Does she have the knowledge, the experience? Fair questions.

But the endless comments about her looks and accessories are silly and retro—even if they are inevitable. Until women anchors are old news, until Hillary or another woman has occupied the West Wing, we’ll be flyspecked with these gender-based  visual aids. The irony: As my female contemporaries in influential jobs have all learned, the one way not to establish power and authority is to imitate men. If Couric tries to ape Uncle Walter (and she wouldn’t), she’s dead. Perhaps there is a reason why there is no female equivalent of the word avuncular.

Clearly, any woman giving orders and making tough calls needs to be deeply knowledgeable, even as she displays humor and shows her human side. Getting the right calibration, though, isn’t easy. And qualities admired in men are still sometimes seen differently when exhibited by a woman. A man can be decisive and aggressive; with similar traits, a woman may be deemed a control freak. My pal and colleague Maureen Dowd once brilliantly described the Elizabeth Dole campaign as “Nurse Ratched for president.” In private settings, I’ve been on the receiving end of Condoleezza Rice’s blasts of certitude, which are in keeping with the Bush administration’s “we know best” tone of authority. It’s no wonder that the secretary of state’s Matrix look on a trip to Wiesbaden, Germany, last year—especially those black stiletto boots (nailed by Dowd as “dominatrix” in style)—got so much attention.

Even when people compliment women, some seem to have only one point of reference. “She has balls like cast-iron cantaloupes,’’ one of my male bosses said about me in a Village Voice article in the late 1980s. (Or did he mean that I acted too much like a guy?)

I’ll never forget the call I got from Washington power broker Robert Strauss, one of the most high-powered names in my Rolodex, when I first skewered one of his pals in a story in the Wall Street Journal. Starting in the mid-1980s, Strauss had helped me on some stories and invited me to events that gave me my first glimpses of the rarefied, extremely male society of top lobbyists and politicians. But when this particular story appeared, he called to warn me that I had become “too mean.’’

Raising the ire of powerful sources is an honorable activity among journalists. When my colleague David Shribman, then the Wall Street Journal’s national political correspondent, heard about Strauss’s call, he pasted the caption of a New Yorker cartoon above my computer screen. It read: “You’ll never have lunch in this universe again.” But I wondered then, and still do, if Strauss would have made such a call to any of my male colleagues, or used just those words.

Just by doing their jobs, women pose a challenge to the Daddy Knows Best hierarchies of Washington, media and business. But our gender gives those who feel discomfited an apparently easy way to dismiss or undermine us: It’s a feline scratch-fest; we’re “mean”; “we’re something that rhymes with rich,’’ to quote Barbara Bush. Or we have hidden motives. “Is there something personal going on here?” the subject of one of my articles once asked me.

Wielding authority isn’t necessarily easier inside the newsroom, even among journalists whose job it is to chronicle women’s increasing power. When I was named the Times’s Washington bureau chief in 2000, my first boss, Sandra Burton, then in China for Time magazine, sent me a telegram saying that she could hear the glass shattering all the way to Hong Kong. That delighted me, as it would any woman in the same situation. But it wasn’t a point I would highlight in my first talk to the bureau. Whatever we struggle with, most of us want to be known for our work, not for being a gender pioneer.

When I was named to my current job in 2003, I was something of an outsider. I had been at the Times only since 1997 and had worked only in Washington; the paper had recently been through a lot of tumult. Some of my new colleagues were men in their sixties who had been at the paper since they were clerks, tearing off wire copy and rushing it to the senior editors on the vaunted Times masthead. That masthead had included only two women from the news department. Now I was not only joining the masthead but also outranking veteran editors who, a day earlier, had been my superiors.

Running the paper’s noon news meetings in my first months on the job, I fell into a typical trap for women leaders—talking too much as I tried to prove myself. I also wanted to let colleagues get comfortable with me, to inject a little humor, to compliment good work. After years spent asking questions in Washington, a veritable temple of the authoritative voice, I’ve tried to avoid issuing edicts and making grand pronouncements. But I have strong opinions. Over the years, I’ve worried that my directness could come off as brusque or my criticisms heard in an outsize way, especially by male colleagues. I sometimes wondered whether expressing even my mildest reservation reminded someone of a chastising mother or complaining wife. Whatever the dynamic, it’s all the more reason not to be stingy with praise. I’ve often turned to Maureen, a Times veteran, for advice. (She once gently but firmly insisted that I win over a notoriously prickly editor by approaching him for counsel and guidance. She was right.)

Journalism, at least, is collaborative and still has antiauthoritarian streaks in its fundamental character. Other fields, from government to medicine to business, are still characterized by top-down traditions, even as the rising number of women in authority helps change that.

I’ve talked with Jamie Gorelick, who held top jobs in the Clinton administration and was a member of the 9/11 Commission, about what it’s like to work in what she has called “very male environments.’’ As general counsel for the Pentagon in the 1990s, with ranking that equaled a four-star general’s, Gorelick found that people in the military often responded reflexively to her with a crisp “Yes, sir.’’ Gorelick, 56, knew that this was a sign of respect. Still, maybe the presence of Gorelick and other women in the military will ultimately change the “yes sir’’ programming.

In more intimate settings too, women tend not to adopt the stentorian voice of authority. Washington, D.C., physician Beth Horowitz, age 51, says she strives to avoid the unilateral,
patriarchal “There is one right answer, and I have it’’ style she has seen in some older doctors. When she involves patients in the decision-making process, Horowitz has found that they’re more likely to follow her recommendations. Women doctors are sued less often by their patients, according to Horowitz. Her theory: “If their doctor includes them, patients don’t feel as angry if treatment does not turn out as well as everyone hoped.”

Whether in Washington or New York, I’ve had a great perch from which to watch powerful women as they evolve and learn to assert their authority. When I first met Hillary Clinton, in 1978, her husband was campaigning for governor of Arkansas, and she was extremely guarded. In the 1980s, when he had lost the governor’s chair and she was an influential lawyer, she was far more welcoming and unfettered. I found the same dichotomy later. When the Clintons were in the White House and Hillary’s power revolved around her husband, she seemed defensive and aloof. When she took national office, she was somewhat more approachable, and more at ease projecting power.

Still, Hillary Clinton is clearly struggling to find a natural and comfortable political style—at a time when the primacy of national security means that any female candidate must project strength. While voters are thirsting for authenticity in political candidates, it is still difficult for women to be their real selves.

The question of how Clinton performs in the run-up to the 2008 presidential elections—and how the media covers that performance—may tell us more about women and power than the news on and from Couric. But at a time when the crush of news could hardly be more consequential, it’s heartening to have such women as Couric and Dowd—and the rest of us—setting the agenda and creating new voices of authority.

This article was originally published in the October 2006 issue of More magazine.

Next: More's March 2012 profile of Abramson.

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First Published Fri, 2011-06-03 09:53

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