Who Cares Who Edits The New York Times?

The editors of our great newspapers are interchangeable.

New York Times building

Not Ira Glass, that’s for sure.

After the Peabody Awards on Monday, New York Magazine’s Daily Intelligencer blog asked Glass, the host and producer of the radio show “This American Life,” about Abramson’s dismissal from the Times, which was the first he had heard of the news.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Glass said when reporter Katie Van Syckle told him Abramson was fired.

“Okay. And she was who?” Glass asked when Syckle told him again.

Glass then explained that he doesn’t pay attention to media news or who edits newspapers, despite the fact that he loves the New York Times.

“I read the newspaper, but I live in my own little bubble,” he said. “I hate reading media news so I actively sort of — I’m not interested in someone getting fired. No disrespect to people that are, but I literally had no idea who she was, or that she got fired until this moment.”

When Syckle expressed surprise, Glass told her that he’d been busy working on multiple shows.

“Am I, like, the only person in New York who hasn’t heard this?” he asked.

And finally, he said he just doesn’t care.

“Honestly, like, I’m a superfan of the New York Times, but I know nothing about how they put it together and I really don’t care,” Glass said.

Among those who do care is TPM’s Josh Marshall, who goes into some detail speculating why owner-publisher Arthur Sulzberger allowed this to turn into such a big spectacle, not to mention risking a major gender discrimination lawsuit. As best he can figure, Abramsom had tried to lure a Janine Gibson from The Guardian as a co-managing editor to Dean Baquet, the latter learned of it during lunch with the former and was embarrassed, and presented an ultimatum to Sulzberger. Marshall reckons,

We know Sulzberger has a rocky relationship with Abramson, maybe because she was a bad manager, maybe because of a gendered perception that she was “pushy.” We also know that Baquet was viewed universally as Abramson’s successor, by Abramson just as much as by Sulzberger and everyone else. It seems clear that Sulzberger was at least annoyed by Abramson’s suggestion that her compensation was lower than it should have been because of her gender and especially because she’d retained a lawyer about it. We also know, I think critically, that Baquet recently been courted by Bloomberg.

Let’s assume that Sulzberger wasn’t happy with Abramson’s leadership and was miffed by the pay dispute. Baquet is her successor and thus, in a way, Sulzberger’s safety cord in his troubled relationship with Abramson, a talented, seemingly universally-liked successor positioned and ready to take the reins. Baquet approaches Sulzberger and essentially gives him an ultimatum. He can’t work with Abramson anymore. Sulzberger isn’t just faced with losing one of the Times top employees and a future leader of the paper. He’s also suddenly faced with being stuck with Abramson.

This last point strikes me as key. Whatever the nature of the deception or misunderstanding, whether or not Sulzberger thought he’d been misled, this would have constituted a real crisis for Sulzberger. He doesn’t just lose Baquet but he’s stuck with Abramson. Yes, of course, she can be fired at any time but not nearly as easily. The Times hires its executive editors from the inside after long service. And he’s the one groomed for the position. Already unhappy with Abramson, faced with losing a future leader and suddenly having no clear replacement for her, he panics and fires her.

That’s interesting if true but I’m nonetheless with Glass on this one: So what?

I’m mildly interested in the gender discrimination angle. But whether Abramson or someone else runs the paper is irrelevant to me. I’d never heard to Abramson before she succeeded Bill Keller in the role a few years back. And I’d never heard of Gibson or Baquet  until reading Marshall’s post. But I’m reasonably confident that either of them could competently run the New York Times editorial operation. Indeed, absent reporting on the handover, I would be completely unaware that the job changed hands in 2011.  I don’t recall offhand who had the job before Keller; regardless, aside from the technological changes, it strikes me as essentially the paper it was when I was reading it out of the metal racks at the university many moons and goodness knows how many executive editors ago.

Running a daily paper must be tremendously challenging and, presumably, it’s only gotten harder in the Internet age. Not only is the deadline always “five minutes ago” but there’s more competition for readers’ attention, less reader loyalty, and fewer resources to go around. Still, the great papers have the luxury of being aspirational posts for the best and brightest reporters. They’re going to do great work for any but the most incompetent or unlikable boss. And, since the Times tends to hire someone who has already had a successful run as managing editor, it’s not like they’re handing the keys to some kid with no clue.

As for Abramson, I don’t have a strong opinion on her tenure. As already noted, I didn’t notice any real change in the paper; given that she took over one of the very best papers on the planet, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But, surely, among the key qualities of the top editor is maintaining a good working relationship with the publisher—especially if he’s also owns the damned paper. Keller managed to do it for eight years, stepping down on his own terms. Abramson failed.

James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. argon says:

    Apparently it does matter who is there, as the latest Frontline show revealed. It was Keller who cowardly sat on key stories describing the shenanigans that the Bush administration and NSA used to support the illegal wiretapping and electronic intercepts of millions of Americans. Had a different editor been at the helm of the NYT back then things could have gone very differently.

    Of course, I could care less about the gossip but the people do matter.

  2. C. Clavin says:

    Argon ain’t wrong.
    Maybe with a real editor the NYT would have joined McClatchey in doing real reporting on Iraq and we could have avoided that monumental blunder; 4000 troops would still be alive and we’d not have spent $2T.
    But who cares.
    Maybe the NYT would have called torture…you know…torture, and Cheney and Bush would be in prison for the war crimes that they have admitted to.
    But who cares.

  3. Tillman says:

    I like Gawker’s take that, no matter who was in the right on this, the firing of Abramson was handled poorly.

  4. Tillman says:

    Consider it this way, Dr. Joyner: no one really cares who edits the New York Times because transitions between executive editors are usually smooth and seamless for the paper’s readers. The only reason this has become something for the Internet to munch over is because of how abrupt the firing was, and how quickly speculation over its causes spread.

  5. Andre Kenji says:

    You may like the NYT. You may hate the NYT. But it´s one of the most influential news organizations in the World(Probably, only the BBC and the AP are more influential than the NY Times). People all over the world despises or idolizes Thomas Friedman and Paul Krugman, people all over the world reads the newspaper(Both in digital and print). I see people that barely reads in Portuguese talking about the NYT.

    By the way, many Brazilians may not care about who edits the News York Times, but many people cares about who is the Brazilian correspondent. Larry Rohter, then the South American correspondent of the Newspaper, became issue of national contention in Brazil when he suggested that then President Lula had an alcoholism problem, and became widely despised among many Brazilians.

  6. Stan says:

    Would American intellectuals have had such a strong pro-Soviet bias during the 30’s if Walter Duranty, the Times correspondent in Moscow, had given honest accounts of the man-made famine in Ukraine in 1934 and the Moscow purge trails a few years later? Would FDR’s response to the plight of Europe’s Jews had been so feeble if Arthur Hays Sulzberger, the Times publisher during the 30’s and 40’s, had been less afraid of American antisemitism and more willing to cover Nazi atrocities? Would Bill Clinton had been impeached if the Times had been more skeptical about the so-called Whitewater scandal? Would we have blundered into the second Iraq War if the Times editors had been willing to challenge Judith Miller’s reporting? For want of anything better the Times is our leading newspaper, and its reporting has a strong effect on our policy makers. So I think it does matter who runs the Times, even if the press is going overboard on the story.

  7. James Joyner says:

    @argon: @C. Clavin: @Stan: Fair points. But, influential as the NYT doubtless is, it’s not the only great paper. WaPo, WSJ, and several major national chains and regional papers have the ability to cut into the NYT’s take on things and, with the Internet, more ability than ever to cut through and gain attention.

  8. John425 says:

    NYT one of the best papers on the planet? Dr. Joyner–I have a bridge I’d like to sell you.

  9. Lounsbury says:

    @C. Clavin:
    Et alors?

    I rather doubt that the NYT has such magical powers that an editorial change would have made any bloody difference at all.

    USA was in a fever in those years, and ascribing magical powers of persuasion to it (look at where it is supportive, say climate change re USA policy) is just magical thinking.

  10. C. Clavin says:

    @James Joyner:
    Stenographers…each and every one of them.
    Zut alors!!!
    Valid point. But reform of the Fourth Estate has to start somewhere…for the good of our Republic…it might as well be at the NYT. Joe Wilson wrote his piece in the NYT and Cheney proceeded to shred him up. Perhaps a stronger editor, with an ounce of integrity, would have fought back. As with the outing of Plame…we will never know.

  11. Franklin says:

    @John425: And your choice is …?

  12. CB says:

    They still publish the Times? I hadn’t noticed.


  13. John425 says:

    @Franklin: I nominate “None of the Above”.

  14. bill says:

    @C. Clavin: wow, “cheney/bush” again?! – the therapy has failed i guess……

    i just love to see the nyt embroiled in the same bs it loves to trash others about…..unless they’re declared liberals i mean. i hope that hag sues them and wins, even if i’d never heard of her before and never again. they deserved each other apparently. isn’t she boxing now?!

    @John425: it was at one time, still has great crosswords!