Robin Abcarian
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Is fired N.Y. Times editor Jill Abramson the new Lilly Ledbetter?

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The New York Times needs to explain more clearly why it fired its first female executive editor
Is Jill Abramson the professional-class equivalent of equal pay heroine Lilly Ledbetter?

Is Jill Abramson, the first female executive editor of the New York Times, who was unceremoniously dumped from her job Wednesday, the professional-class equivalent of equal pay heroine Lilly Ledbetter?

Much is still unknown about the circumstances leading up to Abramson’s termination by New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

But at least two well-sourced media reporters, Ken Auletta of the New Yorker, and David Folkenflik of NPR, confirmed that Abramson, 60, who was less than three years into the top Times job, was fired after she discovered she earned less in pay and benefits than her predecessor, Bill Keller, and asked the newspaper to make it right.

There is obviously more to the story, but if that part is true, the comparison to Ledbetter is apt.

Ledbetter, a retired Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. supervisor, discovered that for years she was paid substantially less than her 15 male counterparts. She sued, and lost because she did not bring the lawsuit in a timely manner. (How could she? She didn't know she was being underpaid.) Thanks to her, Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which restarts the 180-day statute of limitations clock each time a discriminatory paycheck is issued. It was the first bill President Obama signed in office.

Many reports say Abramson had other problems, including a conflicted relationship with the publisher and Times CEO Mark Thompson. On her watch, the Times aggressively reported on Thompson's role at the BBC when it was involved in a controversy over a sex scandal investigation. She has also been described as “brusque” and even, yes, “pushy.”

The Guardian reported that Abramson tried to hire its U.S. editor-in-chief, Janine Gibson, to be co-managing editor with Dean Baquet, 57, the former Los Angeles Times editor who succeeds Abramson now in the top Times job. Though Gibson turned down the offer, the Times' own story said Baquet was unhappy about Abramson's effort to hire her.

Abramson's dismissal was so abrupt, and Sulzberger was so terse about why he fired her (citing only "an issue with management in the newsroom"), that it's only natural for people to wonder what really happened. 

The headline over Rebecca Traister’s New Republic column reflected the feelings of many women: “I sort of hope we find out that Jill Abramson was Robbing the Cash Register.”

“Abramson’s firing," wrote Traister, "was among the most harsh and humiliating I’ve ever seen play out in the media’s recent history. Within minutes of the editorial meeting at which the turnover was announced, Abramson’s name had been scrubbed from the masthead of the paper she’s run for the past two and a half years.”

When disgraced New York Times Executive Editor Howell Raines left the paper in 2003 after presiding over the Jayson Blair scandal, Traister noted, he went out with a big newsroom sendoff:  “In the paper’s report about the departures of Raines and his deputy Gerald Boyd,” she wrote, “Sulzberger was quoted as wanting to ‘applaud Howell and Gerald for putting the interests of this newspaper…above their own.’”

When Baquet was canned in 2006 by Los Angeles Times Publisher David Hiller after publicly pushing back against proposed newsroom cuts, he stood on a desk in the newsroom for his farewell speech and was treated like a hero.

Like many with a deep interest in the newspaper business and its female leaders, I eagerly anticipate an investigation into Abramson's firing by Margaret Sullivan, the Times’ independent and consistently excellent public editor.

Ironically, Sullivan's most recent column is about a new study that finds a continuing gender imbalance in the newspaper industry, and among New York Times reporters in particular. (Of the 10 largest American newspapers, the study found, the New York Times has the biggest newsroom gender gap; 69% of its bylines are male. Here at the Los Angeles Times, the study says, men account for 64% of the bylines.)

The public editor must explain why, exactly, Abramson was fired, and why she was treated so disrespectfully.

Sullivan noted in her column that she'd recently taken part in a panel discussion at an international journalism symposium called "Where are the Women?"

"Sitting there," she wrote, "discussing the paucity of women in journalism leadership globally I had the surreal feeling: Are we really still talking about this?"

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