DAVID GREENE, HOST:
When New York Times executive editor, Jill Abramson, was fired a couple weeks ago there was an uproar in the media world and beyond. The first woman to lead The Times was given less than three years in the position. Her firing was both abrupt and public as was the finger-pointing over why she was let go.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Ultimately it seemed to come down to her troubled relationship with Times publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, and also with the managing editor, Dean Baquet. Baquet was chosen to replace Abramson. A Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, he is the first African-American executive editor in New York Times history.
GREENE: And in his first interview since his promotion, Dean Baquet met with NPR's David Folkenflik to talk about the events that brought him to the top job.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: I couple hours before I sat down with Dean Baquet on Wednesday afternoon, he headed a few miles north to Columbia University for an awards banquet.
How was lunch today at the Pulitzers?
DEAN BAQUET: It was good. I saw Jill there, and she should be there. I mean, she was the executive editor when these two works won the Pulitzer Prize. So I walked up to her and congratulated her. I think she was a terrific editor. I consider her a friend.
FOLKENFLIK: Yet, Jill Abramson didn't sit at The New York Times' table this week, as she has in years past. Two weeks ago the paper's corporate chairman and publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, summoned his editors for a surprise announcement. He had fired her. He later told staffers, it had to do with her treatment of others in the newsroom and her lack of candor with him. Baquet had been Abramson's arrival for the top spot three years ago and became her chief deputy. He took over immediately and has embarked on conference calls with reporters and editors.
BAQUET: I don't think it is any secret that my rise to be executive editor was preceded by a period of turmoil. One of my first jobs is to make sure that the turmoil, which was inevitable, doesn't get in the way of the - of what The New York Times does best. I want to hear from people they have suggestions for how I can do it.
FOLKENFLIK: Baquet spoke to me amiably but carefully. His job title so new, his business cards still read manager editor. Baquet said he would not traffic in details of newsroom dysfunction, but acknowledged his role at the core of the turmoil.
BAQUET: Obviously there was a significant disagreement between Jill and the publisher and Jill and me.
FOLKENFLIK: Jill Abramson would not comment for this story but she told several associates that her rapport with him was fraying. In recent performance reviews he had given her poor marks for alienating other senior editors. This story relies on interviews with two dozen current and former colleagues and associates of Abramson and Baquet. Those interviews the yield a portrait of Abramson as a brilliant, brusque and occasionally brutal news executive. Baquet is considered a warm and affirming presence, and a relentless champion for tough investigative reporting. In our interview, Baquet pointedly criticized the journalistic tendency to romanticize hard-driving editors of the past.
BAQUET: I'm not commenting on Jill's relationship with the newsroom or management style. I'll let others do that. The one thing that people say is newspapers always have tough - I mean, I've seen many eulogies to the city editor who changed my life because he was really nasty to me for six months and made me a better person. I think that's nuts.
FOLKENFLIK: Yet, Baquet acknowledged he, too, can become intense in mid-argument. I asked Baquet about the maps that reporters said had been tacked up at The Times' Washington offices to cover several holes he had punched in walls down there.
BAQUET: It's true. I should have a lawyer with me for this part, shouldn't I? I did - I have a temper. In each case I was mad at somebody above me in rank. That's not an excuse, but it's a fact.
FOLKENFLIK: Abramson was one of a handful of editors who outranked Baquet when he was Washington Bureau chief. Amanda Bennett held several senior senior editing roles at The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News, among other news organizations. She was named the first woman editor to lead The Philadelphia Inquirer 2003 and was fired less than three years later.
AMANDA BENNETT: Women leaders and people I've talked to, not just in journalism, feel that they're kind of caught between two things. One is if you are kind and nice and supportive in a way that would be very welcomed in a male boss, you're seen as soft, and if you're aggressive and pushy and demanding you're seen as too hard.
FOLKENFLIK: Bennett, who says she knows and admires Abrahamson, Baquet and Sulzberger, stressed that she has no knowledge of the specifics at The Times, but she has also written that for a lot of women, quote, "this event hit like a lightning strike to dry tinder." When Abramson became The New York Times' top editor in 2011, she had proven herself first at The Wall Street Journal and then at The Times in a series of senior editing positions. She told me then, that she was mindful of her status as the paper's first female editor.
JILL ABRAMSON: I'm extremely conscious that I stand on the shoulders of women - some of whom, because I didn't come to The Times until 1997, I never met.
FOLKENFLIK: While Sulzberger appeared besotted the idea of naming Abramson to that job, he never really warmed to dealing with Abramson herself. Earlier this year Abramson confronted her corporate bosses, arguing male editors had been better compensated and she consulted a lawyer. The Times argued that she was mixing apples and oranges. Pensions, for example, reflect longevity so they benefited executives who had been there longer. But some female new executives, including Amanda Bennett, say such descriptions explain how disparities occur but not why they're appropriate. Sulzberger said neither Abramson's gender nor her challenge over pay influenced his decision to fire her. Again, Dean Baquet.
BAQUET: I do not believe, by the way, that Jill was fired because of gender. I just don't believe that.
FOLKENFLIK: Abramson's firing hinged on failed relationships, Baquet said, with her boss and with her deputies. Sulzberger told staffers that Abramson had misled top executives and made plans to hire a managing editor for digital news with a status equal to Baquet. Baquet confided to other editors that Abramson's new hire could marginalize him. Baquet shared his frustration with Sulzberger and the publisher feared losing a future executive editor, believing in the promise of Baquet more than the friction-laden present of Abramson. I asked Baquet about his role in Abramson's firing.
I've talked to people who say, you know, in thinking about this it's not as though Dean was a complete bystander to this sequence of events. At a moment where something happened, which clearly upset him greatly, he spoke forthrightly and directly in a way that altered the course of events. Do you dispute that characterization?
BAQUET: Without going into details, I would not dispute that characterization. I think that's a fair characterization.
FOLKENFLIK: Baquet emphasized he made no ultimatum.
BAQUET: The one thing I did not say - by the way, just to say on the record - I never said to anyone it's me or Jill. I think that's a simplistic calculation. But I don't think there's any question that I made it known that I was a little unhappy.
FOLKENFLIK: Baquet has told some of his reporters that until recently he has always been able to work closely with Abramson, and yet he argued that because of the circumstances of her departure Abramson is failing to get her due.
BAQUET: For most of my relationship with Jill, the arguments we had were the debates that two very strong-willed people have when they're running a big news organization. They weren't nasty, and I have tremendous respect for her. And I mean it when I say, three years from now nobody is going to remember this. What they'll remember is she was a great journalist and a landmark editor.
FOLKENFLIK: Tonight, you can hear more of that interview on All Things Considered. I'll take a look at the challenges confronting The New York Times and its new editor, Dean Baquet. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.
INSKEEP: This is NPR News.
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