The wonderful Mario Garcia graciously included me today in his list of good editors he has known. When he asked me for my own thinking about what drove me as an editor, I said what I’ve always felt: That your main job is to make everyone else’s job go better. Another ingredient occurred to me yesterday, when I had lunch with a friend who told me that someone had once called her “the toughest nice person” he knew. Definitely another good qualification.
In the swirl of the Jill Abramson firing, a couple of things being said about the new executive editor, Dean Baquet, didn’t sync with my impression of him. I looked back at this video of a forum I hosted at USC Annenberg with Baquet when he had just become managing editor of The New York Times, and saw why
What I had found most worrisome was Glenn Greenwald’s charge that Baquet has “a really disturbing history of practicing this form of journalism that is incredibly subservient to the American national security state.” When I looked back at the video of Baquet at the USC Director’s Forum on Oct. 27, 2011, I was struck by the fact that he had opened the session with an impassioned call for national-security reporting.
He talked about a call he got, when he was executive editor of the Los Angeles Times, from George Tenet, then director of the CIA. Tenet asked him to hold a story about the CIA, which was spying on the Iranian community in the U.S. Baquet told us that he held the story for a day so as to be able to review it, then called Tenet back and said he’d be running it.
Baquet talked to the gathering of students and faculty about other such stories, as well, including the New York Times reporting on National Security Agency surveillance. He noted that he had had conversations with folks in both the Obama and the Bush administrations on national-security issues, “and the argument is always the same.”
“But so far, not a single bit of evidence — even in the case of Wikileaks, which I edited – has emerged to prove that any of these stories has threatened national security. I’d argue that, in each case, it’s the newspaper that’s being the patriot.” Continue reading An Early Read on Baquet as New York Times Leader
(This is a slightly edited version of the address I had the honor of delivering at North Carolina’s St. Andrews University.)
I want to thank President Baldasare for having me here today.
I want to add my thanks, too, to the faculty and administration of this wonderful university, who have made the fine education that we celebrate today possible. I want to salute the parents and grandparents, the brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins and dear friends who are here to witness this momentous occasion. And, finally, the most important thing I have to say:
CONGRATULATIONS to all you freshly minted graduates of St. Andrews University! Hooray!!! Job well done! You’ve done so much hard work to get to the place where you sit today.
This is a very moving moment for me. I find myself these days in the midst of milestones: our younger daughter got married two weeks ago today. We will be celebrating my mother-in-law’s 90th birthday next month, in Charlotte. And our older daughter is due to deliver our first grandchild in July.
Equally moving to me is this: I am here, on this beautiful campus, where both of my parents taught. I got to party last night with friends I first made half a
century ago, friends with whom I graduated from Laurinburg High School. On this campus, my brother taught me to drive a stick shift, bucking around the parking lot that was then behind the Vardell Building. And it was in that building, by the way, that I took piano lessons. (I became a pretty good driver, but not much of a pianist.)
So, this is a very powerful place for me. And today is a very powerful moment. I was deeply honored to be invited to give your commencement address, and I wanted very much to find something real and meaningful to say to you. So, amidst all these milestones, I’ve been thinking a lot about life, and how it is shaped, and what shapes it. And that’s what I want to talk to you about: The role you play in shaping your life.
In other words, I want to talk to you about LEADING your life. You know, much of the time, life leads YOU. And this is truer now than ever. My field, journalism, has surely shown me that. The constant wealth of information available, whenever and wherever you are, is an addictive distraction. Virtually every field is like journalism, in that change is coming unbelievably quickly – technological change, social change. All our lives, now, are affected by fast-paced change, happening constantly all around us.
It’s easy to get carried along in the rapids.
The reasons for Jill Abramson’s firing as editor of The New York Times are no doubt many and complex. But one thing is clear: the editor-publisher relationship failed, spectacularly.
This classic journalistic partnership, when it works, is like a good marriage. Full of successes and challenges, warmth and tension, it requires constant open communication and full-hearted dedication on the part of both parties. Also loyalty. A good editor ensures that the publisher is never blindsided. A good publisher ensures sufficient editorial independence to do good journalism. And a newsroom relies on believing that the two have confidence in one another. The successful combinations are legendary: Punch and Abe, Katharine and Ben. (I learned how essential this partnership is when I was fortunate enough, as editor of the Des Moines Register, to work with publisher Charlie Edwards.)
What happened in this case, according to the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., is that his editor, Abramson, had to leave because of her management style. But, really: Editors are famed for being difficult. Every journalist has stories about newsroom leaders throwing fits – or, better, potted plants. Hot tempers, arrogance, polarization: these have practically been job requirements for editors. I’m not saying this is a good thing. I’m saying that it’s striking that we’d become sensitive to the unpleasantness only when a woman makes it to the top.
Actually, though, there IS cause for newsrooms to be even unhappier today than usual. They are being made to change (though not quickly enough), and change is difficult. So, if it has always been true that newsrooms were fertile ground for anyone seeking anonymous gripes, it is even truer now. Indeed, my word to wise publishers would be to be wary today of the universally loved editor. He’s probably not doing what you need him to do.
Of course, the editor does have a managerial responsibility to the publisher: To ensure that the staff is doing good work. In this, Abramson seems to have succeeded. Her “management style” became a firing offense only because the editor-publisher relationship was broken.