Two Jill Abramson Profiles Bring Up Accusations of Liberal Slant at NYTimes, Her Own Background

There are two new profiles out of Jill Abramson, new executive editor for the New York Times: A long feature on the Octomber 16 edition of CBS Sunday Morning, and a 10,700-word epic profile by Ken Auletta in the October 24 edition of the New Yorker. Both brought up concerns about liberal bias, either at the paper in general or in Abramson's own background.

Reporter Rita Braver’s friendly interview with Abramson, conducted both at Abramson’s home and at the paper’s Midtown Manhattan headquarters, only touched on concerns about the paper’s ideological slant.

Braver: While she rejects charges that the paper leans left in its coverage, Abramson does admit to some mistakes. A big one, as bureau chief, she oversaw publication of a series of reports indicating that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, which turned out to be false.”

(That would be Judith Miller.)

Ken Auletta's epic had some tidbits about Abramson's liberal bent, and some whispers about her "brusque" demeanor with reporters. According to Auletta, Abramson and her husband “worked for the gubernatorial campaign of the Democratic populist Henry Howell" in the mid-70s, and Abramson kept her foot in Democratic politics.

After Howell lost, they moved to Columbia, South Carolina, where Griggs worked as a political consultant. Abramson worked for an advertising agency, writing ads for other Southern Democratic populists inspired by the 1976 Presidential victory of Jimmy Carter, including the Arkansas gubernatorial candidate Bill Clinton.

Auletta uncovered some anonymous sniping about Abramson’s personal style:

Another critique of Abramson’s performance as bureau chief surfaced as well. Even her most devoted supporters say that she could be short with people, curtly cutting them off in mid-sentence. Those who failed to meet her exacting standards were often berated, sometimes publicly; her critics thought that she played favorites and was mercurial. Some members of her staff also found her egotistical, inclined to quote her own work and to say things like “You have to read my book.” From such complaints and anxieties, ironic whispers began: the woman who had helped slay the king could be “Howell-like.”

Near the end, Auletta returned to concerns that the paper in general (and Abramson) in particular have a liberal bend:


“More than a few editors worry that there is too much attitude or opinion in the Times.” The Times Sunday Review, previously the Week in Review, is now under editorial-page editor Andrew Rosenthal (it former fell under the news department).

....

Norman Pearlstine, Abramson’s former boss at the Wall Street Journal and today the chief content officer of Bloomberg L.P., believes that too much opinion seeps into the Times’ news pages: “Sometimes it’s hard to tell what I’m reading. There are a lot of stories where it seems there is an editorial voice.”

Yet the example Auletta used, of usually liberal reporter Ginia Bellafante criticizing the Occupy Wall Street sit-in, isn’t what most people have in mind when they complain of Times bias.

Auletta did sum up concerns about balance nicely in this paragraph, referring back to Strange Justice, The Selling of Clarence Thomas, Abramson's 1994 book on the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings coauthored with Jane Mayer, which suggested Thomas did not tell the truth to the Senate Judiciary Committee:

An editorial voice in news stories adds credence to the frequent charge that the Times’ news reporting often displays a liberal bias – a critique that will not be lessened by the elevation of a woman brought up in a liberal-Democratic household on the West Side of Manhattan who worked for liberal Southern Democrats and wrote a book asserting that Clarence Thomas probably lied.

Abramson, asked whether the Times has a liberal bias, says, “I think we try hard not to” be biased, but she adds that the Times, as its public editor argued in a column seven years ago, has an insular urban bias that is sometimes apparent in social stories. She fervently believes that the Times is an equal-opportunity prober of Democrats as well as of Republicans. Asked about her own upbringing, she responds, “I’m often the one who raises the point in page-one meetings that our mix of stories is too urban in outlook, too parochial. All my years in Washington, and in some ways being attacked by conservatives, made me more conscious of how a story might be seen in the rest of America.”

Clay Waters
Clay Waters
Clay Waters was director of Times Watch, a former project of the Media Research Center.