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.
The brushed-steel, Renzo Piano–designed New York Times headquarters on Eighth Avenue is located 50 blocks south of the prewar Manhattan apartment where Abramson grew up, the younger child of a successful, never-finished-college importer of Irish linen and his wife, a college graduate who became a homemaker. Abramson is pure baby boomer, from the Wonder Bread childhood years of postwar Eisenhower calm to young womanhood in the turbulent era of second-wave feminism, antiwar protests, drugs and rock and roll. In Beatles terms, she admits to being a George girl, but the real backdrop of her younger days was more like the Manhattan of a Woody Allen or Nora Ephron movie. She played in Central Park, and when she and her sister had birthdays, they never wanted parties, preferring a Broadway show followed by dinner at Sardi’s.
The Abramson household was secular Jewish, a place where, she’s often said, “the New York Times was our religion.” Although the sisters were not pushed to follow a particular career path, “our father really encouraged us,” says Abramson’s six-years-older sister, Jane O’Connor, a publishing success herself as the author of the popular Fancy Nancy children’s books. “He felt we could do whatever we set our minds to, and Jill always had interests. She got very interested in the Lincoln assassination as a pretty young kid. She would get deeply focused on something like that.”
The sisters remain very close. Abramson calls O’Connor “my beacon”; O’Connor says, “Nobody cracks me up the way Jill does.” Every year they take a trip to some far-flung place, such as Hungary, China (twice) or French Polynesia. “Our parents really had the travel bug,” O’Connor recalls. “They used to go to Europe together every spring,” leaving the girls home with their grandmothers and the housekeeper. “We imagined our parents sort of like George and Marion [Kerby] in Topper: We thought they were very glamorous and that they stayed at nice hotels, and when we finally traveled to Europe with them, we realized, no, they are just like they are at home. They are not the Kerbys.”
After graduating from Ethical Culture Fieldston prep school, Abramson went to Harvard, entering just as the university went fully coed. She acknowledges that some hazing ensued but says it was “mainly high school–boy antics that had always characterized Harvard, pre-women. A few guys thought we should still be living at Radcliffe and said so.” Her fellow students in the class of 1976 included Yo-Yo Ma and Chief Justice John Roberts. An English major, Abramson covered culture and theater for the weekly Harvard Independent. She took a turn toward hard news when, in the summer of 1973, she was waiting tables on Nantucket island. A national story broke—Robert F. Kennedy’s son Joseph had crashed his Jeep there—and, through a family friend, Abramson was tapped by Time magazine to file stringer reports.
“I have always had a strong desire to get to the bottom of the facts,” she says now of her decision to become a journalist, “especially when people say the facts are not knowable.”
It was during her sophomore year at Harvard that Abramson met her future husband, Henry Griggs, a preppy musician with a hank of dark hair falling over his forehead. They appeared together in a Noël Coward play, with Abramson, whose favorite book is The Great Gatsby, portraying a flapper. “She was pretty, clearly smart as hell, funny and a bit exotic, being a native New Yorker,” recalls Griggs, who grew up in Connecticut. “When I asked her if she had been in many plays, she said she had not. But since she was reviewing plays for the Independent, she thought it only right to see how it feels to be reviewed! It’s a remark that has stuck with me for nearly 40 years.” Her performance earned her less than stellar notices, but Griggs says her stage gambit was memorable to him because it “revealed great empathy, remarkable intellectual honesty and a courageous willingness to take a risk and perhaps even fail in a very public way.”
Griggs proposed to her in 1980, on a ferry ride from Nantucket, upwind, he says, of the diesel fumes, and they married the following year. The pair have been together ever since, a longevity Griggs chalks up to “complementary personalities. For example, I don’t eat pizza crust, and she loves it.”
After graduation, Abramson continued working for Time’s Boston bureau, where she counts herself fortunate for having had a “young, dynamic female,” the late Sandra Burton, as her first boss. She then did stints as an advertising copywriter in South Carolina and a TV-news election researcher in New York before landing a reporting job at the American Lawyer, where she worked for the notoriously hard-to-please publisher Steven Brill. In 1986, Brill made her editor of his D.C.-based newspaper Legal Times. That same year she also published her first book, Where Are They Now, an examination of the difficulties facing the first class of female Harvard Law School graduates. Pegged as a rising star, she was recruited by the Wall Street Journal’s D.C. bureau in 1988, despite a hiring freeze at the paper.
As his wife was moving up in journalism, Griggs, a writer, editor and public affairs consultant, worked for unions and nonprofits, making hers the career with the greater flash. But despite her success, she insists she has never plotted a path to the top. “I don’t have a strategic approach,” she says with a laugh. “I would say it’s the opposite of strategic. It’s opportunist.”
What she reveled in, during those D.C. years, was her growing reputation as someone unafraid to expose skulduggery and scandal. When Washingtonian magazine put her on a 1992 list of “Women Who Scare Men,” she was flattered. At home, however, Abramson kicked off her pumps and took pleasure in her role as suburban mother of two. She and Griggs bought what she describes as a sturdy “Sears bungalow” on Garfield Street in Arlington, Virginia. They filled it with furniture and children—daughter Cornelia and son Will—but didn’t do much else to improve it. She jokingly called the house Garfield Acres and once took her good friend, Times columnist Maureen Dowd, to the county fair pig races. (The two became chummy during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings—their eyes locked across the Senate caucus room when the word penis was uttered.)
Arlington neighbor Diane Duston, then a journalist with the Associated Press and still a close friend, says Abramson was the kind of working mom who could be counted on to lend a hand in a child-care emergency. “One night my husband was out of the country, and our son was one,” she says. A late-evening vote on legislation that Duston was covering required her to go back to the Capitol. “I had a baby and no babysitter! I called Jill, and she came to my rescue.”
Abramson’s friends say the coverage she’s gotten since her headline-making promotion last summer has missed her humanity and sense of humor. New Yorker writer Jane Mayer has known Abramson since high school. They reconnected at the Wall Street Journal and decided to write a book together about the sexual harassment allegations that nearly derailed Thomas’s nomination. Strange Justice became a best seller, but Mayer remembers one moment during their research that she says encapsulates what she calls their “Lucy and Ethel” style of teamwork.
Working on their book after hours, they sat down with a video of a porno flick Thomas was rumored to have rented. “We felt we had to watch it, to understand him,” says Mayer. “It was called Bad Mama Jama, and it featured an enormously obese African-American woman. Jill, whose kids were then in grade school, waited until they were safely asleep upstairs, and then she and I popped the video into the player and sat down on her couch under an ugly, homemade crocheted afghan. Within about 20 minutes, both of us were sound asleep. The film was so boring, and stupid, and lumbering, it just put both of us out cold. When we finally woke up, as the film ended, Jill couldn’t stop laughing at the spectacle of the two of us, middle-aged working moms, too exhausted to even stay awake through a porno film. It was a cause for giggles long after.” Mayer says they still think of themselves as “two great friends who are constantly getting caught in scrapes and capers—and teetering far closer to the edge of hilarious disaster than most people probably realize.”
At the time, besides writing the Thomas book, Abramson was reporting a wide array of stories involving money and politics. She was a natural bloodhound but says she also developed important insights about journalism during those years. While Reagan was president, she and a colleague wrote a story exposing political cronyism at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“It was a very good, high-impact piece about the very young aides around the HUD secretary, who was then Sam Pierce,” she says. “[We] called them, I think, a brat pack. They all had gotten their jobs through political connections and were very casual about letting political influence color decisions on, like, housing projects for the poor. I was proud of the article.
“I think it was perfectly fair,” she continues. “But maybe a year, a year and a half after, when the HUD scandal was by then ancient history to me, I was crossing Farragut Park to go to the White House, and someone from a bench said, ‘Jill Abramson,’ and then literally started reciting the lead paragraph of the story. And it was one of these people.”
Abramson joined the former aide on the bench, and they talked. “He felt like his life had been destroyed,” she says. “I still felt the piece was legitimate, but it struck me. I’d done so many stories . . . it was just, I think, a healthy reminder that every word that you write about someone is branded on them, and words are not casual things.”
In 1997, Dowd told her friend that the New York Times was looking for more women, and Abramson asked to be considered for a job there. She was hired and three years later became D.C. bureau chief.
Until that point, Abramson had a long record of smooth relations with powerful male bosses. But the new executive editor at the Times, Howell Raines, made it clear he wanted to replace her. “When I would go to book parties and other events in Washington, people would ask me, ‘How are you?’ like I had cancer,” she said in a New York magazine interview years later. “I went from kick-ass Washington journalist to I had a dread disease.”
But she refused to go quietly. When Raines brought Moscow bureau chief Patrick Tyler to D.C., apparently intending to move him into her slot, Abramson threw the newcomer a welcome party at Garfield Acres, recalls Todd S. Purdum, then a member of the bureau. “I admire her enormous fortitude under Howell,” says Purdum, who is now at Vanity Fair. “He was awful. He set out to brutalize her into quitting the Washington job. He claimed she was failing.” Abramson eventually did an end-run around the larger-than-life Raines, pleading her case directly to the paper’s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. She also garnered support from the Times’s then-CEO, Janet Robinson. The New Yorker, quoting an unnamed senior Times D.C. reporter about this period, characterized Abramson as a “ ‘black belt’ infighter.” Asked for her takeaway from that stressful period, she now says simply, “Appreciate friendship during rough times and stay focused” on the job at hand.
The 9/11 attacks occurred in the midst of this professional turmoil, and for Abramson, the following years were even more fraught. The lead-up to the Iraq War included an episode that she now wishes she had handled differently. One of the D.C. bureau’s reporters, Judith Miller, relying on Iraqi defectors and sources within the Bush administration, wrote front-page stories about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, drumming up support for war even as other Times reporters were finding holes in the evidence. “There were government officials who thought the WMD case for war in Iraq was very shaky. We wrote stories about this, but they were sometimes not prominently displayed,” Abramson says.
“I was not making the decisions about which stories got played how. [But] I wish I had played a bigger and louder role in making sure that the other stories [questioning the existence of Iraqi WMD] got the attention that they should have . . . The main lesson I took away from that experience is the importance of reporting, followed by more reporting. And also how critical it is to listen carefully to dissenting voices.”
In 2003, Raines resigned in disgrace over the Jayson Blair fabricated-stories fiasco, and Abramson was summoned to New York to become managing editor, replacing Gerald Boyd, who had been forced out with Raines. She was so happy to be back in her home city that she got a subway token tattooed on her shoulder.
But New York wasn’t entirely kind to her. In May 2007, Abramson was hit by a truck near the paper’s offices, breaking her left leg above the knee and severely injuring her right foot. She was hospitalized for several weeks, and a titanium rod was inserted in her leg; it was two months before she could walk again. (She bemoans the fact that other than the occasional pair of “ortho heels,” she’s pretty much relegated to flats.) But as a Times editor working under Raines’s replacement, Bill Keller, she flourished. In 2010 she took a six-month leave from her managing editor position to make a deep dive into the Times’s digital division, a move that several observers have since noted surely enhanced the possibilities of her own future as well as the paper’s.
A year later, Keller stepped down, and in June 2011 it was announced that Abramson would become executive editor on September 6. When she got the news, the first person she phoned was her sister. “I couldn’t help thinking about how our parents would feel,” O’Connor says. “I got very teary. I just felt a lot of the time I was channeling my mother and father and how over the moon they would be.”
Ironically, given that Abramson wrote a best seller about one of the most sensational sexual harassment allegations in American politics—and surprisingly, since she began her career at a time when the treatment of women by men in the workplace was one of the defining battles in the gender wars—she insists she has suffered neither gender discrimination nor sexual harassment, the sine qua nons of the 1980s working girl. “I never did, and I’m not answering that [way] to be Pollyannaish about the issue,” she says with a laugh. “Not even inappropriate office flirtation. Maybe because I did such tough pieces, people were scared to—I don’t know. It just never happened to me. But I certainly, in real time, was aware of it happening to other women I worked with.” Still, because female “firsts” usually toil among men who came of age between the eras of Eisenhower and Steinem, their professional lives can be tricky, requiring them each day to forge a path between the clichéd “bitch” and “doormat” extremes.
In a 2006 essay for More, occasioned by the ascendance of Katie Couric as the first solo female nightly-news anchor, Abramson wrote about her own difficulties crafting a “voice of authority.”
“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,” she wrote. “I sometimes wondered whether expressing even my mildest reservation reminded someone of a chastising mother or complaining wife.”
Abramson now says her new position at the top of the Timeshas only reinforced her vigilance about how she is perceived. “The truth is, [I was] aware long before I had this job that I do scare some of my colleagues. And I think it’s a combination of intensity and being probing and always questioning, like, ‘Is this the best we can do?’ . . . I’m aware that sometimes when I ask questions in meetings, it’s misinterpreted as criticizing. And so I think there are legitimate parts of personal communication that I probably could work on and am working on. And I’m trying to be very accessible and approachable in this job.”
Abramson started her new position at about the same time as the publication of her third book, The Puppy Diaries, a noninvestigative charmer about adopting a golden retriever (whom she named Scout) to fill her empty nest—daughter Cornelia is doing a surgery residency; son Will runs an indie record label. The book began with a blog she wrote about the dog during her immersion in the digital side; that it was published soon after her promotion is, she says, pure coincidence. She’s taken some ribbing about the book, and when the topic comes up, Abramson seems annoyed for the first time during the More interview.
“I definitely get that some people think it’s not a serious subject for an executive editor,” she says tartly. “But I feel pretty at home with being a multidimensional person. I don’t feel I have to prove my seriousness at this point in my life. Nor do I have to . . .”—now she begins laughing.
“Other people have asked me, ‘Did you do it to, like, improve your human quotient? To soften yourself?’ Nor did I do that. I finished the book almost a year ago, before I had even the slightest inkling [about the new job]. It was an opportunity that I seized and enjoyed, and that’s kind of how I live.”
Her husband elaborates on what he thinks motivated his wife to publicly unpack that part of her life. “The Scout book was largely the result of her wanting to try another kind of writing, again an act of some courage, that sprang from her experience working on the digital side of the paper,” he says. “The Puppy Diaries also involved some self-reflection, which seems appropriate at this stage of life.”
Abramson’s tenure at the helm of the Times has barely begun, but even in her first few months, she created an ambience that is hands-on and intimate, says Carolyn Ryan, the Metro-desk editor, who says she sometimes hears Bruce Springsteen emanating from Abramson’s office. Ryan lauds the new boss for “appreciating” the reporters behind the stories. “You just feel this energy being unleashed. I think she has connected with the Metro staff in a way that feels dramatic and important. She sends out notes in the morning about stuff deep in the paper that she liked. She doesn’t say, ‘Great story’; she says, ‘I liked this [particular detail],’ and it’s always something deep and evocative, and for my reporters, it’s very important.”
A large black-and-white photograph hangs above Abramson’s computer, dominating her office: a woman in 19th-century dress, seated at a table, surrounded by two dozen or so standing men. The woman is Mary Taft; hired by the Times in the late 1890s, she was one of the first females to work at the paper as “an actual news gatherer,” Abramson explains. She had admired the print when it hung above the Metro desk in the Times’s old offices, and when the newspaper switched over to the new building, “it moved to my wall,” she says. Abramson knows well that she carries the expectations of women at the Times on her shoulders, whether she wants to or not.
“I don’t think Jill sees herself as a woman editor but rather an editor who happens to be a woman,” says Times business editor Larry Ingrassia. “She is hardheaded. I don’t think she would promote a woman because she is a woman, though I do thinkshe would make sure that a worthy woman got the promotions her talents deserved, which may not have always been the case in the past.”
Indeed, at this point in Times history, gender equity may be less of an issue than the newspaper’s sheer survival. As More went to press,Times CEO Janet Robinson had stepped down, the company was selling 16 regional papers, and the latest round of buyouts saw several longtime byliners heading for the exit. Bill Keller concedes that these are “tumultuous” times but says he’s confident in Abramson because of her “absolute commitment to the kind of public service journalism, expensive and sometimes dangerous to get, that is the definition of the Times, and the ability to adapt to the innovative possibilities and new audiences that technology offers us.”
“We’re in the middle of a historic transition,” acknowledges Abramson. “And, of course, I’m completely fascinated by that and invested in that and determined that the Times will benefit from that. But the Times will play a more central role than ever in news reporting. [The business side and I] have a shared strategy on how we are going, through this transition, to adhere to the highest-quality news gathering . . . We have as many foreign bureaus as we’ve always had. We have more domestic bureaus and national correspondents than we’ve ever had. And to keep witnessing and telling rich stories that no one else can is, like, our coin of the realm. But it certainly isn’t at the expense of being on the cutting edge of every kind of way to deepen stories and convey the news, whether it’s social media or video.”
Since assuming her new post, Abramson says, she’s “moving ahead well” on her “two big challenges,” which she defines as “innovation and newsroom integration” of digital and print. Her influence on the paper may be seen already in the greater space she’s giving to long, meaty investigative pieces, but she is reluctant to talk about changes she has made or is thinking about. When asked, she says simply, “I’ve appointed some new editors who are bringing new vision to our news report.”
Abramson will reach the paper’s mandatory executive retirement age, 65, in seven years but won’t venture a public guess as to her legacy. “Premature to say,” she replies to a question about how she hopes to leave her mark. “There are new challenges every hour.” What she will say is that, as always, she plans to get a kick out of what she does and will never talk about her top position at the New York Times as a burden. “It amazes me that I have this job, and I’m going to enjoy it to the best that I can.”
NINA BURLEIGH is the author of The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox.
Originally published in the March 2012 issue of MORE.
To read Jill Abramson's MORE essay about women and power, click here.
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