BRIAN LAMB: Jill Abramson, Executive Editor of The New York Times, brand new Executive Editor. You tell a story in your book on the ’The Puppy Diaries’ about your accident ...
JILL ABRAMSON: Yes.
LAMB: Would you start with the accident and tell us about I mean it’s painful to read. I want you to tell us.
ABRAMSON: Yes, well it was a May day in 2007, and I was headed to work out early in the morning before going to work at the Times, and on 44th and 7th avenue I began to cross with the light and a big, white truck that was turning right ran me down. And, you know, I was pretty badly hurt. I was in Bellevue Hospital for three weeks and ICU for a long time. I had, you know, several broken bones, broke my femur which is the biggest bone in the body, I’m told, probably hard to break.
But mine broke and, you know, it was tough for a while. And, you know, it taught me a little bit about what I’m made of. You know, I had to go through, you know, months of physical therapy and learn to walk all over again. People have gone, you know, through far worse things in their life than what I did. But that’s basically the story.
LAMB: And I want to dwell on just a little bit longer because it’s 2007, and then you get this recent appointment to be the top editor at The New York Times. That day when you were walking across the street, did the truck was the truck at fault or were you at fault?
ABRAMSON: The truck was at fault.
LAMB: And the ...
ABRAMSON: Actually people stopped. It’s a nice story about New York. The people who were crossing towards me all stopped. Many stopped to help me and a number of them ran after the truck and made the driver stop.
LAMB: And how and what did he run over? What did the truck run over?
ABRAMSON: At first ran over my right foot, which for some reason dragged me down into the gutter. And then the rear wheel went over my left femur.
LAMB: What were you thinking at the time? Or can you remember?
ABRAMSON: I can’t remember what I was thinking. I remember I didn’t lose consciousness. I remember right after really well.
LAMB: And you say that the doctor says that if it had been two inches ...
ABRAMSON: Two inches higher and he thought I would have been killed.
ABRAMSON: Because some of your major organs are just, you know, just a little bit higher up from that.
LAMB: So what happened right away at the accident site?
ABRAMSON: Policemen were the first to come to the scene and help me. And an ambulance was there very quickly. They had to move me on to like a wooden pallet to get me into the ambulance. And I remember being, you know, aware enough to give all the numbers of both Bill Keller, my then boss at The Times, my husband, my children, and very soon thereafter I was in the ICU at Bellevue, and when they said they were taking me to Bellevue I was alarmed.
I said, ”Oh no, you know, take me to another hospital in New York.” And they said, ”Lady, if the president got hurt in midtown Manhattan, he’d go to Bellevue. That’s where they have the best trauma unit, and that’s where you’re going. And I got amazing care there. Just amazing care.
LAMB: So you’re the managing editor of The New York Times at that point and you know Bill Keller’s not going to be there forever. What went through your head? I mean did you ...
ABRAMSON: Well, you know, a very nice thing is that when I arrived in the emergency room, Bill Keller, actually was already there with my husband. So he’s a terrific friend and a caring boss as well. You know I certainly wasn’t thinking about my job. I was just thinking oh my goodness, I’ve really made a mess here I think.
LAMB: How long were you then out of work?
ABRAMSON: I was out of work for about nine weeks all together. Although, part of the time I was home and even my last week in the hospital, Bill Keller figured that the best medicine for me would be a juicy story. And Rupert Murdoch had just bought the Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones and like from my rehab room I was, you know, looking up everything we’d done on Rupert Murdoch and talking to the reporters who were going to work on a big story about him.
And he was right, it was a great spirit lifter and a great thing to focus on, instead of myself.
LAMB: All right later on in your book, you talk about tumbling a hundred feet down a hill at Yosemite ...
ABRAMSON: I did.
LAMB: When what year was that?
ABRAMSON: That was a year ago. A little over a year ago. And, you know, I probably should not have been ridge or mountain climbing. I went on a pretty steep climb up a beautiful place called Specimen Ridge and on the way down I hit some scree and just lost my footing. And so yes, the 50s have been perilous for me, Brian.
LAMB: And then what happened? How much injury did you have from the fall?
ABRAMSON: I think not terrible. I broke my arm is all.
LAMB: So this is all in the last four years? ...
ABRAMSON: Yes, I said the 50s have proven perilous. I’d never like had any accidents or been in the hospital other than to have my two kids.
LAMB: I guess the question I want to ask you is how ...
ABRAMSON: Am I a clutz?
LAMB: No no really not that so much as how did you then how did you get through these four years with all this health problems and still end up getting the job? I mean did you ever think that this was going to interfere with that process?
ABRAMSON: I didn’t think it would interfere with that process. You know, I was, you know, incapacitated for not that much of a time in 2007 and then the thing that happened in Yellowstone was a small thing. I didn’t really miss work for that. You know, you just soldier on, I guess. I never really became preoccupied with worries that, you know, the injuries would get in the way of work. And luckily The Times actually has a wonderful person who comes on premises twice a week.
Mainly we went through a period when a lot of people had RSI from the computer and some injuries from that. So she the the therapist was a specialist in that. But she saw me twice a week and really helped me get back on feet.
LAMB: You walked in here today like everything’s normal ...
ABRAMSON: Yes, it’s true.
LAMB: No limp, no ...
ABRAMSON: You know, the human body even in its 50s is pretty incredible and the capacity to heal is is is there. And as I said people everyday go through far worse than what I went through.
LAMB: I want to take you back, if I can find my little sheet of paper here. Yes, here it is. Twenty-three years. You were we’ve you’ve been on this network a lot of times over the years in different jobs. This is when you were with The Legal Times and you were on a program with Tim O’Brien, that used to be with ABC hosted by Connie Doebele, I think it was over at the court.
And the question was asked, ”How did you get to be on Regardie’s , which was a magazine in Washington ”power list” let’s watch.
ABRAMSON: It’s beyond me how, what criteria they used for the list . I was told they were looking for a few quirky choices and I assume that’s where I fall in.
CONNIE DOEBELE: Tell us a little bit about Legal Times and what you do as far as Supreme Court coverage.
ABRAMSON: Legal Times is a weekly publication aimed at lawyers and lobbyists and other political types. And our Supreme Court coverage consists largely of a bi-weekly column that’s done by Tony Morrow who covers the court on a daily basis for Gannett.
LAMB: What was your goal in life back then?
ABRAMSON: Just to be a good journalist. And I was then editor of Legal Times. Steve Brill had recently bought itand, you know, he wanted it to contain very deep and juicy coverage of the legal and lobbying professions here. And the mission that he gave me and that I had my eye set on, was to really get behind the curtain of powerful law and lobbying firms on K Street and no one had ever really tried to cover them comprehensively before.
So I had my work cut out for me.
LAMB: What do you think of what’s happened to that story in the last 23 years to today?
ABRAMSON: Well certainly, you know, it’s justifiably drawn more attention from reporters. I mean just the role of money and politics and the role of lobbyists as the middle man in that system has gotten so big and, you know, we’ve had so many scandals here in Washington, many of which I hate to say I’ve covered myself.
But that’s that’s been out of that system
LAMB: Where were you educated?
ABRAMSON: I was I grew up in New York City, and I went to a private school there and I went to Harvard for college and no graduate school.
LAMB: Where did you get interested in journalism?
ABRAMSON: In college, you know, I think partly I was inspired those were, you know, I was in college during Watergate and amazing investigative reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, you know, had a big impression on me. And I started writing for one of the college papers and really got a kick out of reporting and writing.
LAMB: You didn’t write for the Crimson but you did write for The Independent. What was the difference? ...
ABRAMSON: The Independent was just a weekly, I guess I liked weeklies. Legal Times was a weekly too. And you know what’s a little less formal I didn’t I wondered how much time I’d have to write. I was applying myself pretty hard to the books and courses. So I just, you know, thought I’ll write for that. I didn’t know much about The Harvard Crimson.
LAMB: As you said, you grew up on the upper west side of New York. What were your parents like? Are they alive by the way?
ABRAMSON: They’re not. Which is a pity because they were giant New York Times lovers and, you know, would have been very proud to see me go to work there and unfortunately both of them had passed away at the point I left the Wall Street Journal to come to The Times.
LAMB: And what was life like though growing up there? And what were they ...
ABRAMSON: And, of course, when you’re you’re you’re little, you think the way you grow up is the way everyone grows up. You know, odd things, we have Howellloween coming up now. I mean I went trick-or-treating in, you know, an apartment building where, you know, the elevator man would take all the kids from floor to floor.
And I just thought that’s what trick-or-treating is.
LAMB: You said I don’t know when you first said this, but The New York Times was the Bible. And you got some criticism.
ABRAMSON: I did. I was, you know, kind of making a light comment and realized it was heard by some people in a way that seemed offensive to them. I’m sorry for that. But I what I was trying to capture is if The New York Times said something was true or important in my house growing up, that was the final word.
LAMB: What what makes The New York Times what it is and why for people that don’t read it. You can now buy it anywhere in the United States. You didn’t used to be able to.
ABRAMSON: Yes, it’s been a national newspaper for quite some time now.
LAMB: What makes it unique?
ABRAMSON: Well that’s one thing that makes it unique. Although now our audience is global, of course, on the web. And we also own the IHT newspaper.
LAMB: The International Herald Tribune?
ABRAMSON: Which is in Asia and Europe and gives us global reach in print as well. What has always set The New York Times apart is just the quality of the journalism. There is no other news organization that has as many experienced correspondents both around the country, here, and around the world.
We have we’ve opened new domestic bureaus in Phoenix and Kansas City, which is unheard of these days. Many other supposedly national newspapers have cut their national correspondents and their national bureaus. And we have as many foreign correspondents too. We just hired two new correspondents to cover Afghanistan and Pakistan, where we remain fully committed to covering that story.
LAMB: One of the things that seems to me that’s changed is it used to be called a network a network the newspaper of record.
LAMB: But with the internet you don’t see as many full page speeches anymore. I assume you’ve put them on the ...
ABRAMSON: Well I yes but they run online. We have, you know, in terms of what CSPAN covers, we’ve been criticized that Times used to print the roll call of important votes in the Congress. And we put those online. But, you know, we newsprint has become so expensive that we’ve had to cut back on certain things like stock tables and it’s regrettable but it’s what keeps our news gathering operation large and vibrant.
And I think that’s the most important thing.
LAMB: When did you decide to do a book on ’puppies’?
ABRAMSON: Well the real answer isn’t when I decided to do the book, but the idea came for the book came from an online column that I wrote in the ’Home and Gardens’ section of NYTimes.com , which was an unusual and somewhat quirky thing for the managing editor to do and how I started doing that is that my husband, Henry, and I had just gotten a new puppy, you know, Scout who was nine weeks old and the apple of our eyes.
But I was also sleep deprived and worried that I was making basic mistakes and giving her, you know, good training and a loving home. And two editors at The Times had arranged a meeting with me just to discuss whether The Times should consider expanding pet coverage in the news report.
And instead of really listening to their ideas, I regaled them with my worries and funny stories about Scout’s first days, and they just said, ”You know, Jill, you should really, you know, write about this. This would be a good way to, you know, launch something new. And so periodically, for her first year I wrote the ’Puppy Diaries’ online. And it struck a cord.
Then the book grew out of just after first year, I wanted to make a single narrative and develop some of the characters in a deeper way. And it was just a pleasure to write.
LAMB: How much did you think about the fact that when you wrote this book, we now know that you live in TriBeCa and that you have a home in Connecticut and you have two kids, Will and Cornelia I believe, Henry Griggs is your husband. And we know who your best friends are, Jane Mayer and you talk about Maureen Dowd in here.
ABRAMSON: It’s mostly about the dog.
LAMB: I know but you’d learn all that if you read the book. Were you ever concerned in the position you’re in that people would know all that about you?
ABRAMSON: Yes, it certainly is not a tell-all book by any means. And, you know, as someone who’s been an investigative reporter, I always have kind of prized some degree of not being recognized where I go reporting. And, you know, though I have a very prominent position, at the times I still feel relatively anonymous. And I don’t think anything from the book will change that too much.
LAMB: What’s it mean to be the editor?
ABRAMSON: The executive editor? ...
LAMB: Who is the editor?
LAMB: Who is the editor?
ABRAMSON: Well I am the top ...
LAMB: But they call it executive editor
ABRAMSON: Editor, you know, I’m in charge of our news report and a news gathering operation of about 1,100 journalists so, you know, you know, at the end of the day on difficult decisions, you know, in consultation I have a great team of people underneath me but, you know, I make the call.
LAMB: So what’s it like? I mean did you ever think when did you think there was a chance you’d be the editor the executive editor?
ABRAMSON: Well I guess when I was managing editor for eight years. And, you know, I thought from that job which was the second highest editor in the newsroom that I had a shot. But it was no by no means a certain thing. And I just tried just to focus on the news report everyday and not really think too much about what would come next.
I’m a strong believer that you should never take a job because you think it’s going to lead to the next thing. You should do the job and love it. And that’s that was true when I was managing editor and, so far, in month two has been true as executive editor too. It’s a thrill.
LAMB: Where do you keep your office?
ABRAMSON: I have a desk a cubicle like in the middle of the newsroom. And I also have an office nearby for when I need to talk privately with people.
LAMB: You are getting a lot of attention, as you know, a big piece in The New Yorker recently by Ken Auletta. And he starts right off in the first paragraph saying people fear you.
ABRAMSON: That is what he says, and you know, I I accept that that may be true. I don’t think of myself as being particularly fearsome or that tough. But, you know, except that, you know, I have to go out of my way to show approval when I love something in our news report and to encourage people and be enthusiastic about what they’re working on. Because I know people have found me a foreboding presence for some reason.
So I’m conscious of that and I work to cut against that image.
LAMB: Well he even says some of your newsroom colleagues consider you to be intimidating and brusque.
ABRAMSON: Yes, he did.
LAMB: Did this book have anything to do with trying to soften your image?
ABRAMSON: No it didn’t. It really grew out of the online reading and the fact that, you know, people are so passionate about their pets. And, you know, I once almost crashed our website because I invited readers of the ’Puppy Diaries’ to send in pictures of their dogs. But it was not and when I started writing the column it was with no ulterior motive whatsoever.
LAMB: When I was reading all this background on you, I wrote down this question. It’s kind of it’s kind of convoluted.
LAMB: What did you learn from Howell Raines about how not to manage? And the reason I give it that because, as you know, everybody talks about your relationship with Howell Raines . Our audience knows who he is. We’ve had him on here over the years. And what was that story all about and did you really have that great of conflict with him?
ABRAMSON: There was conflict, but you know, it was 10 years ago now. It sort of amuses and amazes me that people still dwell on that. I’ve had a lot of difficult and very talented editors who’ve I’ve worked under, mostly harmoniously. And I did I learned things from Howell that were very valuable, as well as having some conflicts with him.
But as I said it’s 10 years ago. I’m sort of am tired of going back to that.
LAMB: Back to the did you learn what not to do. Let’s not personalize it for a moment. What have you learned by watching editors you worked for Bill Keller , for a long time, and just watching management? What have you learned that have you changed the way you approach people?
ABRAMSON: I think so, and something that I definitely learned from Bill Keller is he’s the first person I ever heard the expression, ’lead from behind’ from. He had, you know, been a foreign correspondent in South Africa, I think it’s a Mandela thing that’s come back vis ΰ vis a recent piece about President Obama.
But what he meant is that, you know, the best ideas bubble up from reporters. An editor, you know, can guide and, you know, place emphasis on certain parts of the report and make sure The Times is fully competitive. But like all good ideas hardly spring from either a managing editor, an executive editor, or Washington Bureau chief. And that’s something I’ve learned.
LAMB: What is it over your lifetime that you’ve not like about people that have managed you?
ABRAMSON: That’s an XLlent question. You know, I haven’t liked instant judgment all the time. I mean some of the pieces you use the word convoluted for your question. Some of the investigative pieces I wrote earlier in my career were convoluted, then sometimes editors were impatient with, you know, all of the detail that I culled for my reporting.
And I never liked to see that sliced out of the piece.
LAMB: We’ve, as you know, seen you through the ages. Here is you were deputy bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal.
LAMB: How long were you at the ’Journal’?
ABRAMSON: I was the ’Journal’ almost 10 years?
LAMB: Here in Washington?
ABRAMSON: Here in Washington the whole time.
LAMB: Here’s just 30 seconds of you back in 1996.
ABRAMSON: You know I think that what we forget is that, you know, a certain kind of person writes a letter to the editor or makes a call to CSPAN you have to be motivated to do that. And the more motivated people tend to be, the more partisan. But that we do have this great middle of the country, much of which doesn’t even vote. Who’s tuned out, maybe cynical, maybe just not interested but probably not all that partisan either.
LAMB: Expand on that a little bit.
ABRAMSON: Well, of course, you know, watching that now, the country has become more partisan. Although there are still vast numbers of people that who are not tuned into politics. But, you know, the anger levels in the country, discontent about the economy, and you know, fighting between Democrats and Republicans have all stoked partisanship.
And certainly you see that that’s transformed Washington. When I began covering Washington, you know, Republican and Democrats got together, you know, and had a drink at the end of the day. It was Tip O’Neill, you know, days in the Congress. And, you know, O’Neill and President Reagan, even had a good relationship.
And, you know, that kind of, you know, bipartisanship sort of crumble away here.
LAMB: Why did you leave the ’Journal’?
ABRAMSON: Why did I leave the ’Journal’? The ’Journal’ was a fabulous place to work and I was really left to work mainly on my own enterprise. So I loved working there. And Al Hunt was the bureau chief for most of my years there and he was like a great leader, and I got a tremendous amount out of working for him, and learned a ton. But at the end of the day, you know, core business reporting wasn’t really my thing. I loved politics, I loved doing long money and politics investigations and I just, you know, I grew up in in New York. In a family, you know, that that was guided by The New York Times. And, you know, I started fell in love with, you know, reading and newspaper reading, reading The Times. Reading the ’Arts and Leisure’ section and it just always seemed to me that The Times was like this giant buffet table with all kinds of delicious dishes on it. And I wanted to write for all of the sections. And I haven’t managed yet to write for all of them but I’ve written for a lot of the feature sections, as well as hard news.
LAMB: There’s a talk-show host here in Washington, I want to make sure I don’t I’m pretty sure I’ve heard him say this. Mark Levin refers to the New York Slimes.
ABRAMSON: Yes, well you know, he is quite conservative and, you know, when I worked at The Wall Street Journal it was known for having a very conservative editorial page and people would just describe the paper broadly as being conservative and you know, there is a big divide between the editorial and news sections of that newspaper and that’s true at the Times too. And I think because our editorial page is quite liberal that, you know, the whole New York Times raises the hackles of people like Mr. Levin.
LAMB: What’s the difference if you’re biased?
ABRAMSON: What’s what?
LAMB: What difference does it make? I mean, you’re in a business and if people buy your paper, why does it have to be un-bias?
ABRAMSON: Well, you know, I think that reporters should never go into a story with their mind made up about what the story is. And to me, that’s a bias. It may not be a political bias, it could be a prosecutorial bias, but I think you have to go into your reporting listening to the people you’re interviewing and ready to be surprised and ready to change the thesis of your piece.
LAMB: How powerful is the front page and how long does it take for you to decide what goes there and where it goes?
ABRAMSON: The front page is still very powerful. You know, it’s a mix of stories but in many ways it sets the agenda for many other news organizations still. You know, we plan out the front page in advance and in some cases some of the deep enterprise stories, I will have read, you know, the previous weekend or even weeks before.
But, the front page has to be urgent, so it has to be right on the news but it has to tell you the story behind the story as well. And you know, when I say a mix, sometimes there’s a light story on there just about how people live in the country.
LAMB: Think of I don’t know, it could be recent times of a story that hit the front pages of the New York Times that just went viral.
ABRAMSON: That went viral.
LAMB: That everybody jumped on it. I mean, there have been tons of them over the years but one that you can remember.
ABRAMSON: Well, our giant scoops get jumped on by everyone and I would say, you know, the one that springs to mind is our discloser written by Jim Risen and Erich Lichtblau about the NSAs eavesdropping program.
You know, just that, you know, was such big news. It was a program that even most of the members of congress didn’t know about, it was so secret. And so, that went viral. I remember, you know, we broke the story about governor’s Spitzer’s interactions with a prostitute ring and I just remember, you know, we broke it on our website and, you know, in the newsroom seeing two minutes after the story went up, you know, it was on television.
LAMB: Well, take the Governor’s Spitzer story, where did a story like that start?
ABRAMSON: It started with reporters. It started with, you know, I don’t want to say who but a great investigative reporter who works on our metro staff was, you know, told to take a look at a complaint that had been filed and there was something odd about the proceedings, the actual indictment, and to look if any political people showed up.
And so, he was there and saw that they had. It was a very laborious process of connecting the dots.
LAMB: But, talk us through how many people get their hands on that story before it ends up being read and the headline, the positioning of the story, and then the all-important whether you run it or not. What would be the steps through that whole process?
ABRAMSON: Well, the crucial test for whether you run it or not is do you have the story confirmed by reliable sources and enough of them. And obviously when you have a sitting governor it’s a sensitive subject, but we had a reporting team, I’d say in the end it was about six or seven people, it wasn’t a cast of thousands. And our metro editor, Joe Sexton, at the time and political editor, Caroline Ryan, managed every step of the story and kept me apprised.
I remember Joe Sexton came in to talk to me on a Friday. We actually broke the story on a Monday, so we worked intensively on it and I thought Friday night we might have enough confirmation that we might be going with this story, but we didn’t have it everything pinned down at that point and it was an exciting roller coaster weekend.
That took some of our reporters here to Washington because Governor Spitzer went ahead, even though he was aware that we were working on this story, with going to the White House it was either the gridiron or White House correspondents dinner. I can’t remember which.
LAMB: So, internally, do you bring the publisher in at some point?
ABRAMSON: I did in this case. On Saturday night I called Arthur Sulzberger Junior at home and told him about the story.
LAMB: Could he have killed it?
ABRAMSON: He would never kill a story and you know, my experience that’s never happened. He’s the publisher of the newspaper, so theoretically, yes, but he, you know, he knows how careful we are and he just asked me to keep him informed, which is what I did.
LAMB: Did the Governor Spitzer know before the story hit the streets that it was in there?
ABRAMSON: He knew that, yes, his top aides knew that we were going with the story, that we were putting it online and that in fact is why he scheduled a news conference for later that day and the rest of the media had no idea what that would be about.
LAMB: Why did you put it online and not in the paper?
ABRAMSON: Because, you know, we publish stories when they’re ready on whatever platform is the best platform. And putting it on NYTimes.com that led our website was the right call. It was timely and the story was ready to go.
LAMB: But isn’t I mean, if you knew about it on Friday
ABRAMSON: Yes, it’s competitive.
LAMB: But, you also would you ever make a choice saying, we really don’t want it on our front page of our paper, we’ll put it on the website and get the story out.
ABRAMSON: Oh, no, because obviously on the website you’re reaching many more people. So, arguably the impact is greater on the web than it is on the front page. It’s just we used to be in the habit of holding things back in the early days of the web, holding back our big stories for the next day’s front page.
And, you know, we’ve moved now to a digital world where the front page is still vitally important, the print paper is still loved by, you know, our over a million subscribers and it’s going to be around for a long time, but we publish stories when we have them now and they’re publishable.
LAMB: On a story like that, do you bring the lawyers in?
ABRAMSON: I can’t remember. Certainly on the NSA story we brought the lawyers in.
LAMB: Now, do they have the power to stop a story?
ABRAMSON: Our lawyers really are there to just make sure we’re on solid legal footing when we do publish. I can’t really remember a single story where they were arguing not to publish and we wanted to publish.
I mean, the most famous case of that in Times’ history is, of course the pentagon papers when the Times’ law firm at the time, Lord, Day & Lord, was advising not to publish the pentagon papers and even told the Times they couldn’t defend the Times in court and the Times got new lawyers.
LAMB: So, go back to the fact that your metro reporter found the story; somebody had called them or he found the story, started the process, he got six or so people involved in it, when did you get involved?
ABRAMSON: Friday. I mean, just they were not working on it long and Joe Sexton came into my office to brief me about the story on Friday in the late morning, if I remember correctly.
LAMB: So, again, just for the process
ABRAMSON: But, we held it close. I mean, I didn’t, you know, because it was competitive and sensitive. So, it’s not like I broadcast it on Friday to all of my editor colleagues.
LAMB: So, you hold it inside even close?
ABRAMSON: On a story like that? Yes. And on the NSA story as well.
LAMB: Who decides that it goes on the web.
ABRAMSON: I decided.
LAMB: Who decides what the headline is?
ABRAMSON: I decided only Bill Keller would have decided. He was out of the country at the time this story happened. Of course, the executive editor would usually make the call, but since he was gone, I did.
LAMB: Who decides what the headline is?
ABRAMSON: I the headline writers brought a couple of headlines to me and I remember just approving one of them. But, I saw the headline before.
LAMB: The reporter has nothing to say about the headline?
ABRAMSON: Almost never. Occasionally I’ll ask a reporter on a story to please look at the headline and make sure it’s accurate. Occasionally a headline can push a story further than the nuances of the facts take it. But, our headline writers are brilliant.
LAMB: I know you don’t have any control over the columnist, the editorial page editor does, but do they still write their own headlines?
ABRAMSON: They do, I believe. They write both the headline and the band that sometimes runs in the middle. I think they all come up with their own.
LAMB: Let me ask you a touchy question, I suspect. Last Sunday when we were recording this there was a nice review on your book in the Times Review section, written by Alexandra Styron, who is I assume Bill Styron’s daughter?
ABRAMSON: Daughter and has written a memoir herself.
LAMB: What’s the politics of something like this? We see it all the time in the Times. You wrote a book for the Times books, here it is, you’re the executive editor and bingo you get a big full page in the review.
ABRAMSON: You know, it may be hard for your viewers to believe, but I had no idea whether either the Sunday book review or the daily book review was going to review the book until, like, pretty recently. I knew before the reviews were published, but, you know, the reviewer makes a call on a book and I know there are people who may be skeptical and think, oh, the Times would never publish a negative review of an executive editor’s book.
But, in fact there have been negative reviews by top Time’s people and, you know, it would be a major scandal if they put the book out for review and the reviewer wrote a negative review and then we didn’t run it. So, the reviewer calls it like he or she sees it.
LAMB: I did find some negative reviews on amazon.com, there weren’t a lot, but do you get on and read those kinds of things?
ABRAMSON: I haven’t read the amazon reviews.
LAMB: Somebody said I thought I had it with me, but somebody said that oh, I didn’t like the book, it was boring. It was just Jill Abramson by the way the Times thing was favorable, but saying that you were just dropping names about all of your connections and friends.
ABRAMSON: No, I don’t think that’s true, but everybody has a right to their opinion.
LAMB: We go on with your career with the time when you were enterprise editor of the New York Times, what was that?
ABRAMSON: That was when I came to the Times in 1997. I was actually mainly writing, but I in terms of investigative work that the bureau was doing, I would come up with some ideas and I attended the morning news meetings and had some front end editorial responsibilities.
LAMB: Before we show this clip, what’s the exact story of how you went to the Times? The Maureen Dowd story?
ABRAMSON: I knew Maureen Dowd because I admired her reporting. We had covered some of the same stories and I ran into her at a book party in 1997 and the Times was getting a new Washington bureau chief at that moment and she came up to me and said, do you know any good women who the Times can hire?
And I kind of raised my eyebrows kind of like, what am I, chopped liver? And she said, oh, you would never leave the Journal and I said, huh, and you know, she had the new bureau chief get in touch with me.
LAMB: Who was that?
ABRAMSON: It was Mike Oreskes.
LAMB: Did he hire you?
ABRAMSON: He did hire me and Joe Lelyveld hired me.
LAMB: And he was the executive editor?
ABRAMSON: He was the executive editor at the time.
LAMB: Well, here you are in 1998
ABRAMSON: I’d like to take the second part of your question first, because that’s at least the one that’s been causing me a lot of pain as this story about Mr. Glass has unfolded because I think what happens when you have a highly publicized case of fabrication, which this appears to be, is that the public begins to think they all do this.
And that worries me quite a bit because I think reputable journalists clearly don’t make up quotes, they don’t make up scenes, they are extremely careful and literally agonized about the truth of what they write.
LAMB: As you know, the Times had its own problems after this with a man named Jason Blair and Howell Raines was the editor at the time and Joe Boyd was the managing editor. What did that Jason Blair story do to the Times? How did it change the way you operate?
ABRAMSON: It was a scalding experience for the Times and we absolutely put in some new safeguards to, you know actually really aimed at making sure all of our journalists know Times’ standards backwards and forwards and have the right kind of training and supervision.
And we now have a public editor, which we did not have an ombudsman or anyone from the outside scrutinizing our journalism. And after the Jason Blair episode we decided it was prudent to have one and we’ve had, you know, several at this point.
But, you know, it costs the two top editors of the newspaper their jobs. It was a very wrenching time.
LAMB: But, as you sit there as executive editor, you can’t possibly know what every editor at that paper is doing.
ABRAMSON: It’s true, but I still, you know, it may seem given Jason Blair and some other self-inflicted wounds at the time, like hard to, you know, appreciate the truth of what I was saying back in 1998, but I still believe that. You know, most everyone I work with has the highest kind of journalism standards.
And the Times, you know, drills that into people and you know, everyone who works there just loves the New York Times so much and cherishes it and would never do something to harm it. But, it’s absolutely true that as executive editor, I can’t monitor every word that goes into our news report.
LAMB: You were close to the stories that were written by Judy Miller and you can explain how close you were to those, which suggested that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. And a lot of people when they read that in the New York Times said, if the New York Times is saying it and we know that they’re not for a war, this must be true. What impact did that have on you and I know Judy Miller went to jail and all that, but she’s no longer with the Times.
not though, over that coverage, but she’s not at the Times and I was not her editor.
LAMB: But, what was your reaction to that and how can something like that happen?
ABRAMSON: Well, it happened not only in the Times’ coverage but throughout the news media and it happened, you know, I’ve spent a long time studying how it happened because when you go through an experience like that you’ve got to learn and there have to be ways to counter a rush to, you know, print stories, many of which were based on Iraqi defectors, who were unreliable.
But, they were talking to both the media and lots of people in the Bush administration so that when reporters were calling people in the government for confirmation about the supposed program of WMD, they were getting confirmation. Sometimes, you know triple confirmation from high ranking officials.
So, it was infected information that I think was purposely leached into, you know, the system and what I think I learned is the importance there were dissenting sources in Washington. There were analysts at the CIA who were very skeptical of the WMD evidence that was presented at the UN and talked about on television by President Bush and Secretary Rice and, you know, Colin Powell. I guess she was the national security advisor then.
But, there were dissenting voices and again, I talked about Jim Risen before. Jim connected with some of those people and wrote, you know, stories, you know, quoting analysts who were skeptical, but you know, those stories tended to run in, like, the back pages of the A section where the pieces that focused on the existence of WMD were, you know, big played on the front page.
But, I was Washington bureau chief then. I was not involved in the play of stories. I, you know, would pitch stories from Washington reporters for the front and you know, sometimes the ones I liked got on the front page and sometimes they didn’t.
But, you know, it wasn’t only the Times and in the Times, you know, there were some good stories too that did express skepticism. But, you know, I think the public the first public editor we had, Dan Okrent who wrote about the said, you know, the stories that gave credence to WMD, were big, you know, front page headlines and the other stories were as quiet as lullabies.
LAMB: I got on your website this morning and I was just looking around and I wanted to see what you were doing with video. I know you’ve studied this and you’ve been into the digital part of this, but I don’t exactly remember what page I was on but I know it was opinion and I’m going to show you what I saw on the opinion page and the reason I’m going to show you this is because I want to ask you, as this stuff is moving so fast and changing so fast, I want to ask you what this is all about. This was the first piece on the video section in the opinion section.
ROBERT REDFORD: What evokes the majesty of our country and the spirit of our people more than the Great Plains? Millions of acres of rich soil that yield a bounty of wheat, corn and soy. The breadbasket of America. But today, these lands are threatened by big oil who has planned to run a pipeline straight through this American heartland.
The keystone XL pipeline that carried the dirtiest oil on the planet from Canada to America’s Gulf Coast refineries and ports, it would firmly wed our energy future to the destructive ways of our past. It would promote one of the most damaging industrial practices ever devised to coax low grade crude oil from tar sands.
In piping tar sands crude across our country, it would expose America to the kinds of ruptures and blowouts that in just the past year have brought environmental disaster to the Yellowstone River, the North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.
Nearly 3 million Americans are already working to build a sustainable future. It’s the 21st century, we’re not about to turn back now. Mr. President, stand up for American workers and our land. Stand up for energy security, stand up for the future you know we deserve. Say no to the Keystone XL.
LAMB: Now, the things I want to ask you about I know you don’t control this because it’s opinion, but there on the screen is a very clever, well-produced it’s really an op-ed piece you would find on the
ABRAMSON: And Robert Redford, I believe, has written op-ed pieces in the Times and so this is a video version of that.
LAMB: But, what I wanted to ask you about is you saw on there you had the Times logo in the right hand corner, it’s just what is your opinion after watching all these changes what impact this is going to have because you could see with somebody with lots of money
ABRAMSON: Would be confused.
LAMB: Yes, but somebody with a lot of money would be able to produce a fancy little opinion piece like that and give it to the Times.
ABRAMSON: Well, we have a very skilled video unit that does highly produced videos too and the key word is opinion. I know that readers and people who come to our website are sometimes confused about that line. But, it’s, you know, firmly drawn and observed throughout the Times. And, you know, the key to that video is that it is opinion and it’s Robert Redford’s opinion and I don’t think many people would confuse that with the voice of the news, the voice of the newsroom of the Times. It’s the opinion side.
LAMB: Ken Auletta by the way, what did you think of his piece?
ABRAMSON: I thought it was OK.
LAMB: Oh, 21 pages when you print it out. But, here’s a paragraph I wanted to ask you about, 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 who wrote a book asserting that Clarence Thomas probably lied.
Do you worry about this?
ABRAMSON: I’m mindful of it; I don’t worry about it. I think one thing about having spent more than 20 years of my career here in Washington is that, you know, I had to, you know, do stories that were tough on republicans and democrats alike. When the Times hired me, I had done groundbreaking stories about President Clinton’s fund raises excesses in 1996.
So, you know, I go into my reporting just with a dogged get the story and however I was brought up is irrelevant.
LAMB: So, why do you think they picked you?
ABRAMSON: Why I think they picked me because I’m a good journalist who, you know, knows a good story when she sees one and knows what it takes to get it nailed down and published.
LAMB: Explain that a little bit more about being a how do people judge I mean, you have to do it every day, how do you judge what’s a good journalist? Give me some concrete
ABRAMSON: I’ll give you some concrete. Well, I’ll give you an example of, you know, when Steve Jobs passed away it was at night and, you know, John Markoff with help from Steve Lohr, they are two of the most experienced tech writers at the Times. They had prepared in advance an obituary and they updated it and it was just full of detail.
John Markoff has the benefit of having covered Apple since its founding. He knew Steve Jobs pretty well, he’d actually spent time with him over the summer. And a good story from an experienced journalist like that can be an obituary. There are things I still remember from reading that obituary that night right before it went up on website that, like, are etched in my brain like a little movie unspooling.
And John also did a video that was very illuminating. But, our bits blog spun into some live blogging and, you know, other members of our business staff and our technology staff began contributing to that and it was really good quality journalism. And soon we were also culling some of the best Tweets because, you know, Jobs, you know, really had a connection to a lot of people.
His death was reacted to in a very emotional direct way. And so we put some of those up and it’s all quality journalism.
LAMB: So, how are we going to deal with all of this? We have three networks and a radio station.
ABRAMSON: I know. I listened your radio station over the weekend.
LAMB: But, you have what used to be a newspaper and now a website with video and, you know, I’m sure podcasts and the whole thing. How are we going to deal with all this information? Got any tricks?
ABRAMSON: Well, I think it makes the New York Times more irreplaceable in our society because we do have authority and we’re known for the quality of our journalism. I think people turn to us because they think they’re going to read what is confirmed and truthful.
LAMB: So, your job is going to be harder than it used to be?
ABRAMSON: Well, in terms of the competition, it’s harder because you have to keep track of, you know, so many stories are breaking at any given moment. But, you know, to keep our focus on the ones that matter and I think our editors and our reports are really good at zeroing in on those.
LAMB: All right, give us one thing that you have said to yourself you’re going to change at the New York Times. It can be anything.
ABRAMSON: About me?
LAMB: No, about the I mean, things that you’ve watched this paper and now you’re the boss, what’s one thing you want to change?
ABRAMSON: I don’t want every story to be 1,800 words. I think in general we have a lot of long stories that need to be long. Things like Amy Harmon’s profile of young adult with autism, which, you know, was very, very long but worth every word.
But, there is a certain lack of discipline, sometimes a point is repeated too many times in a story or there are three quotes making the same point where one would do and I’d like to see a variety of story lengths.
LAMB: Jill Abramson, brand new executive editor of the New York Times and author of the Puppy Diaries raising a dog named Scout. We thank you very much for your time.
ABRAMSON: Thank you so much.