By Casey Bukro
The New York Times is a classic case of how poorly the media tell stories about themselves.
Times Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. fired Jill Abramson as executive editor, touching off a storm of speculation over who did what to whom and why, and motivations behind the story that was told or not told.
Days after the dismissal, Sulzberger issued a statement complaining that “a shallow and factually incorrect storyline has emerged.”
One version of that storyline held that Abramson was sacked because of her complaints that her $525,000 salary was less than her predecessor’s, a man, setting up the argument that a woman was paid less than a man for the same job.
Another thread was Abramson’s management style, described as polarizing, non collegial, mercurial and pushy, traits that might be tolerated in a man but not in a woman.
“I decided that Jill could no longer remain as executive editor for reasons having nothing to do with pay or gender,” said Sulzberger’s statement, as he hoped to clear up the matter as it seemed to get murkier.
Hard-charging media organizations like the Times often demand full disclosure from the government agencies or corporations that stumble into controversial territory. But, when media get into trouble, they often get defensive, say they’ve been misunderstood or say it’s nobody else’s business.
The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics says journalists should “abide by the same high standards to which they hold others.”
Another good guideline in a crisis is: Tell it all and tell it fast. That advice comes from Frank M. Corrado, a Chicago communications specialist.
Some observers say the New York Times affair has settled into “navel gazing by the media,” described as an occupational hazard. The writer of that sentiment wondered why Abramson was fired only nine days after the Times’s chief executive “gushed” about her.
A Vanity Fair report, including an interview with Sulzberger explaining his intentions, said “The New York Times is an institution whose employees are adept at, perhaps addicted to, in-house Kremlinology.” Even those closest to the story are wondering if they know the true story, or the whole story.
Some of the more thoughtful and detailed information about the New York Times affair appears in The New Yorker, by Ken Auletta. He says:
“It is an affair in which neither side behaved well or with any finesse and the institution, which is so central to American journalism, suffered.”