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Jill Abramson tells graduates she's 'scared ... excited,' but tattoo stays

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'I'm talking to anyone who has been dumped,' Jill Abramson says during her Wake Forest commencement address

In her first public comments since she was dismissed five days ago as executive editor of the New York Times, Jill Abramson told graduates at Wake Forest University that, like them, "I'm a little scared but also excited."

Abramson, the focus of a controversy over pay equity and gender equality, did not address those issues at Monday's commencement.

Nor did she mention Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the New York Times publisher, who said Saturday that he fired her for "arbitrary decision-making" and other managerial shortcomings while leading the newsroom the last three years.

"Sure, losing a job you love hurts," Abramson told the graduates. "But the work I revere -- journalism that holds powerful institutions and people accountable -- is what makes democracy so resilient."

She added, "This is the work I will remain very much a part of."

Abramson has remained silent on the circumstances of her removal. But other media outlets have reported, without documentation, that she was paid less than her male predecessors.

Sulzberger flatly denied that, writing in a statement Saturday that Abramson's pay package her last full year was 10% higher than that of her immediate predecessor, Bill Keller.

"Equal pay for women is an important issue in our country -- one that the New York Times often covers," Sulzberger wrote. "But it doesn't help to advance the goal of pay equality to cite the case of a female executive whose compensation was not in fact unequal."

Sulzberger wrote that, because of "arbitrary decision-making, a failure to consult and bring colleagues with her, inadequate communication and the public mistreatment of colleagues," Abramson "had lost the support of her masthead colleagues and could not win it back."

In a column Monday, New York Times media reporter David Carr wrote that the "messiness" of Abramson's abrupt removal had overwhelmed the newsroom.

"It is one thing to gossip or complain about your boss, but quite another to watch her head get chopped off in the cold light of day," Carr wrote. "The lack of decorum was stunning."

Abramson, saying the theme of her commencement speech was "resilience," told 1,800 graduates and about three dozen media members: "You know the sting of losing, of not getting something you badly want.... When that happens, show what you are made of."

She added, "I'm talking to anyone who has been dumped."

"What's next for me?" she said. "I don't know. So I'm in exactly the same boat as many of you." The graduates broke into laughter and applause.

Abramson did not criticize the New York Times or its top management. In fact, she called the newspaper "an important and irreplaceable institution."

"It was the honor of my life to lead the newsroom," she said.

In her only reference to gender equality in newspapers, Abramson mentioned that two of her heroes were former New York Times reporter Nan C. Robertson and former Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham.

"They both faced discrimination in a much tougher, more male-dominated newspaper industry -- and they both went on to win Pulitzer Prizes," she said.

In a brief conversation after her 11-minute speech, Abramson politely declined a request by the Los Angeles Times for comment. Asked whether she intended to address her removal in the coming days, she replied, "No, I don't think so."

She smiled at a reporter, adding, "I've done what you're doing right now, so I know you have to ask."

Wearing a black graduation gown and blue running shoes, Abramson remained onstage after her address to pose for photographs and to shake the hands of hundreds of graduates after they received their diplomas. She was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.

Abramson, who referred in her speech to the "small media circus" that has followed her since her dismissal Wednesday, said her only reluctance in appearing here Monday was her concern that her presence would overshadow the graduates' achievements.

"I think the only real news here today is your graduation from this great university," she told the graduates.

"I'm impressed that your achievements have attracted so much media attention -- as well they should,"’ Abramson said, eliciting a round of laughter from graduates seated behind a long row of journalists and TV cameras.

Abramson said she "so appreciated" the messages of support and encouragement she received after her dismissal. One came from Anita Hill, she said, who faced personal attacks after she accused then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in 1991.

"Anita was one of many people who wrote me last week to say they are proud of me," Abramson said.

Hilary Burns, 21, who graduated Monday after serving a year as editor of the campus newspaper and has a new job writing for a women’s  business website, called Abramson’s address "a really good first public statement" by a "powerful and successful woman."

"She was funny -- she took a serious situation that's impacted her life and kind of turned it around into a learning lesson for us," Burns said.

Burns, who tweeted updates during Abramson's speech, said she told Abramson she was a "a big fan" when she shook the editor's hand on stage. She said her school friends, in text messages, told her they were impressed with Abramson.

"People have nothing but respect for her and the way she's handled everything," Burns said.

As Abramson closed her address, titled "The Importance of a Truly Free Press," she remarked, "We human beings are more resilient than we often realize."

Abramson also said she was asked by a Wake Forest student Sunday evening whether she intended to remove the stylized New York Times "T" tattooed on her back.

"Not a chance!" she said to the graduates, who gave her a rousing ovation.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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