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Ousted NYT Editor Addresses Wake Grads

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Former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson (right) on the dais this morning at Wake Forest University. (Photo: Justin Catanoso)

By Justin Catanoso
Special to The Greenville Guardian

WINSTON-SALEM, May 19, 2014 — Without a trace of rancor or bitterness, Jill Abramson, the recently deposed executive editor of The New York Times, offered graduates of Wake Forest University on Monday morning a message that is highly uncommon among powerful and accomplished commencement speakers: she’s just like them. Really.

“What’s next for me?,” she asked near the end of her 11-minute address, taking on perhaps the second-most important question that those following Abramson’s firing want to learn. “I don’t know. So I’m in exactly the same boat as many of you. I’m a little scared, but I’m also a little excited.”

She didn’t look scared at all during the three-hour ceremony. For a woman whose former boss – Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. – described her as pushy, divisive and having lost the confidence of her management peers, Abramson looked positively calm and serene all morning. She wore jeans and purple running shoes beneath her black academic robe, and after her speech, remained to shake hands with nearly 2,000 graduates who strode across the stage, diplomas in hand.

Of course, the first-most important question on the minds of many is “What happened?”

In a move that took the newsroom largely by surprise, Abramson, 60, was dismissed last Wednesday from perhaps the most powerful position in American journalism – the executive editorship of The New York Times. She was the first female ever to hold that job and she did so for less than three years, during which the paper won eight Pulitzer Prizes. Her successor, former Managing Editor Dean Baquet, reportedly threatened to resign if Abramson remained in her job. Sulzberger chose to fire her and elevate Baquet, who became the first African-American to lead the Times.

Clearly not wanting to burn any bridges or close any potential doors to her next move, Abramson has turned down all interview requests, including those made by some of the more than 50 credentialed journalists who covered her speech from the front row. If any of them bet on her lashing out or defending her brief tenure, they left disappointed.

After an introduction by her friend Al Hunt, a columnist for Bloomberg News and long-time Wake Forest trustee, Abramson let on that the media firestorm over her firing last week made her think, momentarily, that maybe she should cancel the speech.

“The only real news today is your graduation,” she said, standing barely tall enough to peer over the podium. “I didn’t want the little media circus following me to detract from that.”

Though she backed away from an honorary degree she was to receive Sunday at Brandeis University, she remained committed to Wake Forest. Her planned talk, “The Importance of a Truly Free Press,” though, went out the window. Instead she spoke mostly about career ups and downs, her passion for the vital work of journalism, and the unparalleled need to remain resilient.

Abramson said her sister called her the day after she was fired and said their father would’ve been just as proud of her on that dreary day as on the exultant day a few years earlier when she made history as the Times’ new executive editor.

“I knew what she was trying to say,” Abramson said. “It meant more to our father to see how we’d deal with a setback and try to bounce back than deal with success. ‘Show what you’re made of,’ he’d say.”

That became a recurrent theme of her talk, a theme that will no doubt resonate with graduates heading into an uncertain world where, despite their expensive private school degrees, few will realize their career aspirations in the near term.

“Graduating from Wake Forest means you’ve experienced success already,” she said. “Some of you – and now I’m talking to anyone who’s been dumped, not gotten the job you’ve wanted or received those horrible rejection letters from grad school – you know the sting of losing or not getting the thing you badly want. When that happens,” she urged the new graduates, “show what you are made of.”

Abramson then referenced Anita Hill, who sent a note of support last week and knows a thing or two herself about resilience, as well as the late Washington Post Publisher Katherine Graham, whom Abramson said faced far greater gender challenges than she has. She also talked about bouncing back from having been hit by a truck some six years ago while crossing a Manhattan street.

“Human beings are more resilient than we realize,” she said.

Abramson’s brief references to her former employer were only gracious, perhaps even wistful. If she is angry – and how could she not be? – she didn’t let on.

She said “it was the honor of my life to lead the newsroom.” When a student asked her Sunday evening if she intended to have the much-written about tattoo of the Times “T” removed from her back, she said, “Not a chance.”

In closing, Abramson once again managed to convey that her life is not so different than the 1,880 graduates seated before her, with a strong hint that it won’t be too long before she’s back in the industry she loves.

“Leaving the protective cocoon of school for the working world must seem scary. You’ll probably have a dozen different jobs and try lots of different things,” she said. “Losing a job you love hurts, but the work I revere, journalism, is what makes our democracy so resilient.”

One of the graduates, communications major Hilary Burns, who was also editor of Wake’s student newspaper, the Old Gold and Black, told The Washington Post she drew inspiration from Abramson’s message as a woman in journalism: “She’s been so successful — that gives me hope that there’s a bright future ahead.”

Justin Catanoso is director of journalism at Wake Forest University and a freelance writer based in Greensboro.

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