JILL’S NEW BEGINNINGS: Wake Forest University found itself on a national stage Monday morning as media outlets clamored to cover the keynote address of its commencement speaker, Jill Abramson.
This story first appeared in the May 20, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The former New York Times executive editor hadn’t made any public remarks since she was fired on Thursday. Abramson’s college appearance drew reporters and crews from numerous media outlets and following the speech, the media heralded her remarks as a successful counterpunch to a flurry of damaging memos by the Times on why she was dismissed. USA Today said the former editor gave a “bravura performance,” while CNN characterized her speech as dignified and devoid of negativity towards her ex-employer. Other media outlets, such as Time and The Washington Post, viewed the speech as a teachable moment to readers on resilience, which was the subject of her speech. For its own story, the Times gave a straight and somewhat sanitized account of the event, with the headline: “After Firing From Times, Jill Abramson Talks About Resilience.”
Abramson’s 11-minute speech, while short, touched on her dismissal, which has been the source of much debate. Leading up to the speech, the Times had issued a series of statements by publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. explaining why he had fired the first female executive editor of the paper after less than three years on the job, despite the Times’ improving financial results. Rumors of unequal pay, gender discrimination and unfair treatment had loomed as a reason, besmirching the name of the publication. Sulzberger over the weekend again denied the rumors, saying Abramson’s dismissal stemmed from issues related to her management style.
While Abramson didn’t address those topics head on in her commencement address, she did talk about “discrimination,” citing the difficult times for Times reporter Nan Robertson and Katharine Graham, the late publisher of The Washington Post.
“They both faced discrimination in a much tougher, more male-dominated newspaper industry and they went on to win Pulitzer Prizes,” the former editor said, while also citing Anita Hill, another personal “hero.” In the Nineties, Abramson coauthored a book about Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation and Hill. The editor revealed that following her firing last week, Hill had written her a note saying she was “proud” of Abramson.
Abramson’s grit in the face of a difficult time was underscored moments earlier by Al Hunt, a Wake Forest alum and columnist for Bloomberg View, who introduced her. He lauded his friend as an “absolutely fearless,” “great editor,” who is a “pushy” and “courageous” New Yorker with “an accent so thick we may need a translator.”
But Abramson didn’t let the moment hang on her recent misfortune. She reconnected with the new graduates, noting that they must be afraid because of “leaving the protective cocoon” of college, adding: “What’s next for me? I don’t know, so I’m in exactly the same boat as many of you. Like you, I’m a little scared but also a little excited.”
Although she did express sadness over having to leave her dream job, Abramson said she’ll remain in the profession she loves: journalism. Referencing Robert Frost’s commencement speech to Colby College graduates in 1950, the former editor left the class with a parting shot — and perhaps a clue that there’s more to come from her.
“Life is always full of unfinished business,” she said, leaving the stage to a standing ovation.