It was November 2012 and The New York Times news team had an interesting gift for their brand new president and chief executive, Mark Thompson. It was a lengthy article, questioning whether he had been entirely honest about what he did, and didn’t, know about the then burgeoning Jimmy Savile scandal before he left his previous job atop the BBC.
The person finally responsible for the paper running the story was its executive editor Jill Abramson, only in the job since the previous year. In hindsight the decision seems almost to have been designed to send a message to the incoming boss: “I am my own woman. News is my thing. If this risks damage to the executive floor, so be it.”
Now Ms Abramson, 60, is gone, dismissed not formally by Mr Thompson but by his boss, the chairman of the New York Times company, Arthur Sulzberger Jnr. If on that day in November 2012, Ms Abramson was telling the brass she was tough and they’d better deal with it, she now has her answer: they have dealt with her.
Attempts to reach out to the paper for any comment from Mr Thompson went unanswered. But that his relationship with Ms Abramson had been poisoned almost before he got his feet in the door of the paper’s skyscraper headquarters in midtown Manhattan has been widely documented. That said, it seems she had fallen foul of others, too, including Mr Sulzberger himself, who announced her dismissal to a stunned newsroom on Wednesday afternoon.
Equally frayed, it appears, was her relationship with her managing editor, Dean Baquet, who was named as her replacement. In a lengthy article last month, Politico reported a row between the pair that resulted in Mr Baquet storming out of her office and slamming a hand against a wall in anger. More recently, he blew up over an attempt by Ms Abramson to poach Janine Gibson, another Briton, to be co-managing editor alongside him.
Ms Gibson, who has spearheaded the growth of The Guardian’s US-based newsroom and who is shortly to return to London to take control of its global digital operations, confirmed the approach to one of her own reporters. “The New York Times talked to me about the role of joint managing editor, but I said no,” she said. It is not clear what part Mr Baquet’s fury may have played. “Not saying anything else,” she told The Independent.
Ms Abramson was known to be fiercely loyal to the paper, even to the extent of having its stylised “T” tattooed on her back. Her appointment in 2011 was seen by some as the old Grey Lady finally moving beyond its past as a male-led bastion. Once installed, she went to lengths to promote women to top jobs. That she may have been shown the exit for pushing her (still male) generals too hard will not sit well with many who lauded her elevation in the first place.
Most recent, it seems, was a claim by Ms Abramson that she was being paid less than her predecessor, Bill Keller. Whether or not she felt compelled to raise the issue as a matter of principle, it seemingly did not sit well with upstairs. Ken Auletta, media writer for The New Yorker, noted: “This may have fed into the management’s narrative that she was ‘pushy’, a characterisation that, for many, has an inescapably gendered aspect.”
In earlier public statements, Mr Thompson has denied any rift between himself and Ms Abramson. But he can have barely have forgotten the Savile article that was published on his very first week. Its focus was a letter drafted by his own lawyers, on his behalf, warning The Sunday Times not to publish an article on the first revelations then percolating through the media about Mr Savile’s inappropriate contacts with young female fans. Mr Thompson was said at the time to have been unaware of the letter’s contents.
In October, as he was preparing to move to his new job at arguably the world’s most prestigious media title, Mr Thompson said in a statement that “during my time as Director-General of the BBC, I never heard any allegations or received any complaints about Jimmy Savile”. However, in its article The New York Times said the paper’s own inquiries about the content of the letter to The Sunday Times, had made clear “the degree to which Mr Thompson, in his final days at the BBC, had information at his fingertips about Mr Savile’s alleged abuse”.