May 20, 2014

Sulzberger explains himself with an inexplicable metaphor: "You don’t cut off one arm, and then wait and cut off the other."

In an interview with Vanity Fair's Sarah Ellison. The arm-lopping metaphor refers to the quick, brutally public axing of Jill Abramson.

The key revelation in this interview is the severity of Baquet's reaction to the recruitment of "Janine Gibson, the U.S. editor of the Guardian newspaper, who had worked with various Times editors, notably Dean Baquet, on stories about the N.S.A. documents revealed by Edward Snowden."
It appears that while Baquet outwardly expressed enthusiasm about Gibson, he did not know that she was being recruited for a job equal to his own. Looking back on the effort, Sulzberger recalled, “We said to Jill, ‘You have to bring Dean in on this.’ It was clear Jill needed to bring her leadership team in.” Gibson and Baquet had lunch, and Gibson reportedly revealed to him the title of the job she had been offered: co-managing editor, on equal par with Baquet himself. “When Janine told Dean that she’d been offered the job of co-managing editor, he didn’t have a clue,” Sulzberger said. Baquet reportedly betrayed no irritation during his lunch with Gibson. But two days later, on Wednesday, May 7, he and Sulzberger had dinner. At that dinner, “I learned the severity of his feelings,” Sulzberger said, which I took to mean that Baquet gave Sulzberger an ultimatum of sorts. Baquet himself had earlier been offered a job at Bloomberg News. Now, Sulzberger worried that Baquet might leave. “At that point, we risked losing Dean, and we risked losing more than Dean,” Sulzberger said. “It would have been a flood, and a flood of some of our best digital people.” Sulzberger went into the office the next day and relayed to Abramson that his meeting with Baquet had not gone well. He gave himself 24 hours to make sure he was doing the right thing, he said. Then he offered the executive-editor job to Baquet. On Friday, May 9, he told Abramson it was time to make a change. The announcement was made five days later, on Wednesday, May 14.
At the end of the article, Ellison suggests that Baquet "fragged" Abramson. Ellison had referred to "the curiosity" of Sulzberger's arm-cutting metaphor, but she proceeds to lob a violent metaphor of her own.

"Fragging is a macabre ritual of Vietnam in which American enlisted men attempt to murder their superiors. The word comes from the nickname for hand grenades, a weapon popular with enlisted men because the evidence is destroyed with the consummation of the crime." So wrote the Saturday Review in 1972, a quote I found in the (unlinkable) Oxford English Dictionary.

ADDED: Josh Marshall read the Vanity Fair interview and here's what struck him as key:
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.
Baquet caused Sulzberger to panic.


Kansas City said...

Interesting read. Sulzberger is very unimpressive. Speaks as a guy who considers himself very important (as one would expect of a man of inherited wealth and power), but says little that suggests any depth.

The reporter miniaturizes and mocks Sulzberg, such as, through her comments about his odd personality, jokes that no one else thinks are funny, looking "bereft," misquoting of Churchill (which she uses to club him at the end), bad judgment on hiring, and making it pretty clear that he is hiding the fact he paid Abramson less than Keller. The metaphor was stupid, but Sulzberger does not seem to be a bright guy.

The "explanation" is that Baquet was a petulant egotist about the job offer to Gibson and told Sulzberger it was either Abramson or him. So Baquest used that power play to get Abramson fired and secure his promotion. Great guy and like he will ever be remembered for anything else.

Overall, Sulzberger added to the PR disaster by granting this interview and leaving his fate in the hands of a reporter who obviously does not think much of him.

It remains unclear to me whether the Times secured a severance agreement with a release of claims by Abramson. If not, then Sulzberger's bad judgment in how he handled this and in this interview (and other comments) is even worse. He is making a bunch of statements that do not really help him as a matter of PR and will potentially be used against him in litigation.

He should have just terminated her with a bland expression of appreciation and let the whole thing blow away. But he lives in a bubble where he cannot accept criticism and thinks he can fix things by stating his side of the story (not very well).

Martha said...

Looks like Pinch "fragged" Pinch in this Vanity Fair interview.

gerry said...

I continue to relish this NYT PR disaster.

I continue to appreciate your shrewd analysis of the disaster:
"He's also suddenly faced with being stuck with Abramson."


Paco Wové said...

What is Gibson's fate now? Working as an underling for a boss that clearly loathes her? Scuttling back to the Grauniad?

Kansas City said...

I suspect the reasons Baquet's power play worked were that Sulzberger: (1) did not like Abramson (as Marshall said, he did not want to be stuck with her); and (2) felt he could not lose a high profile African American editor.

I don't know if panic is the right word. Assuming Baquet was as big a jerk as suggested, there was no good answer to the problem.

This is probably unlikely to end well for Baquet. To some extent, he will have a biased media favorably disposed toward him as an African American, but on the other side, Abramson will have significant people in her camp, what Baquet did was cheap, and presumably no one likes Sulzberger. Neither Baquet nor Sulzberger will ever shake this episode.

This is great because, while there is no reason to care about who is managing editor at the Times (it will be the same biased paper headed for even leaner times regardless), the ineptitude of Sulzberger, the petulance of Baquet, and the incompetence of Abramson are foreever linked.

SteveR said...

Good grief! Why can't these people conduct business without acting like middle school students on their smart phones and Facebook.

William said...

That wasn't a flattering article. You would think that the publisher of the NYT would know how to leverage a favorable press. But Abramson doesn't look very adept at office politics......The clash seems mostly about personalities, but the antagonists (and their audience) wish to give moral significance to their vanity and failures.......I hope Baquet takes to mentoring some of the young ladies who now feel confused and lost in their jobs at the NYT and that things don't work out as planned. A good sex scandal needs sordid sex, not pay differentials, to have lasting significance.

Brent said...

Can someone please explain to me in thos age of equality why having a vagina means you get a pass on being criticized and held to the same standard as a man?

Ann Althouse said...

"That wasn't a flattering article. You would think that the publisher of the NYT would know how to leverage a favorable press."

He inherited a family business. Why would he be good at it? He had 2 individuals who were good at it, and he got whipsawed.

David said...

The amputation metaphor has some promise, but wrong appendages.

Kansas City said...


Sulzberger is so dumb that he could not find a friendly reporter and, instead, chose one who mocked him in her article?

Also, what makes one conclude Abramson and Baquet are good at "it" (presumably, the newspaper business)? They may be. I just don't know why we assume they are.

grackle said...

Looking back on the effort, Sulzberger recalled, “We said to Jill, ‘You have to bring Dean in on this …

Abramson is hiring Gibson, Sulzberger dimly realizes there might be trouble with Baquet because of it, so he apparently orders Abramson to inform Baquet. Yet Baquet was never informed.

Here's what should have happened: Sulzberger checks to see if his order to Abramson to inform Baquet was followed. Finds out it wasn't. Sulzberger calls Abramson into office and privately chews her out. Sulzberger then calls Baquet into his office and with the now chastened Abramson present tells Baquet what is going on.

I see here a weak owner, Sulzberger, who is intimidated by a strong personality(Abramson), who dithers when confronted with a sticky situation and by his indecisiveness makes a bad situation worse.

Strong, assertive personalities will take as much rope as is given up by a weakling boss. It's their nature. Sulzberger probably abdicated his authority long ago. Abramson had been operating on what had become the norm – which was she had nothing to fear from Sulzberger and could ignore him with impunity.

But then, when the situation came to a head, the victimology formula obtained: Race trumps gender and Baquet play his card to the hilt.

William said...

Sulzberger will remain the publisher of the NYT. There must be many ambitious journalists in America who would find it politic to find favor with the publisher of the NYT. The fact that he can't find them does not speak well for his acumen.....All the participants are unreliable narrators to the office politics at the NYT. This makes one suspect how reliable they are when reporting on the politics in Washington.

paul a'barge said...

Sarah Ellison? Did someone say Sarah Ellison?

Someone got a pony.

HoodlumDoodlum said...

Ann Althouse said...
Baquet caused Sulzberger to panic.

I'm not sure that's true--Baquet caused Sulzberger to make a decision but not necessarily in a panic. He forced a, shall we say, "Decision Point."

Left Bank of the Charles said...

What's missing from Arthur's story is the meeting where've he sat Jill and Dean down together to work out their differences.

If I'd been Arthur, when Dean came in with the offer from Bloomberg, I'd have wished him the best of luck in his new job.

That's old school and so is the idea of the job of editor being like a football coach. The job is not to be liked but to motivate the team and get results.

And the other thing we haven't heard is how Jill marched into Arthur's office and demanded Dean be fired after he put the label bitchy on her in quotes marks in Politico.

Lucien said...

On the up-side, once you cut your arms off, it's harder to shoot yourself in the foot.

Kansas City said...

One other thing that might have happened was that Baquet learned of the discussions between Gibson and Thompson about the effort to extend Abramson's tenure as managing editor. Baquet saw his path to managing editor being at least further delayed by an extension of Abramson's tenure or perhaps blocked entirely by the combination of Abramson and Gibson. So, he delivered the ultimatum - either fire Abramson or lose your star African American editor.

Kirk Parker said...


Actually, Sulzberger is impressive -- impressive in his unimpressiveness.

Sam L. said...

A plague on all their houses! They deserve all the bad karma descending upon them.

mccullough said...

Abrahmson stabbed Baquet in the back, but not hard enough. He didn't frag her. He had his superior perform a field execution on her.

Good for Baquet. Last rat standing.

dave in boca said...

Dumbass dunces on the left are comparing Sulzberger with Murdoch, imbecilely [?] forgetting, in their top-down universe, that Murdoch started with a single paper in a one-horse Aussie town and built a world-wide empire.

Pinch grew up in luxury's lap and drove Harley's to develop his journalistic skills. I read his granddaddy's [?] book A Long Row of Candles concerning the many world leaders he had met.

Pinch would embarrass himself meeting a world leader, most of whom would snicker at this arrogant moronic pipsqueak's lack of knowledge and judgment.

Lydia said...

At that point, we risked losing Dean, and we risked losing more than Dean,” Sulzberger said. “It would have been a flood, and a flood of some of our best digital people.

That loss of "our best digital people" is, I think, key in this. Just a short while before the firing, Sulzberger's son had released a report pushing the digital aspects of the Times. Abramson was more a traditionalist and didn't like all the digital innovations proposed. Baquet did. I don't think it's all that hard to understand just whose side Sulzberger would come down on.

NotWhoIUsedtoBe said...

1. Marshall sounds convincing to me. Abramson would have been the undisputed leader of the news division with no alternative, unless the Times were to break its own tradition and hire someone from outside.

2. Who the hell edits Marshall's posts? There are so many grammar errors! Is this normal now?

3. Baquet won the Game of Thrones by being willing to walk. That's a pretty common tactic and has worked for many people (it just got me promoted, too.) However, Baquet made the owner look really, really bad. He better be worth it.

Snackeater said...

If you cut one of your arms off, how are you able to cut the other one off?

Anonymous said...

What Baqeuet did to Sulzberger - Fragging - is what Obama did to Hillary.

Obama, if you recall, said the he is the answer to our prayers. He is hope. He said: HOPE = CHANGE.

He is NEW.

We were wrong.

We panicked. We voted for him. Hillary lost.

Ergo: Jill is going to joining Hillary 2016 campaign.

Drago said...

America's Politico: "Ergo: Jill is going to joining Hillary 2016 campaign."

I think you mean she will "officially" join Hillary's campaign.

Like 90% of the media, Jill was already "unofficially" on Hillary's campaign.

Gary Rosen said...

I went to high school with Sulzberger, but only for a year because he flunked out. I was very naïve and no big man on campus myself but even then I remember thinking "Sulzburger from the New York Times?? How did a high-powered family like that produce such a nonentity?"

Consider his career. He held a couple of desultory jobs as a reporter and then went back to the NYT at the age of 26. You'd think if he had any pride he would have tried to make a name for himself elsewhere first. But maybe he knew deep down what loser he was and that he had no chance without his family ties as a crutch.

Skeptical Voter said...

Is Sulbberger repeating the old "coyote ugly" joke?

Guy goes into a bar, gets snockered, meets an ugly girl, goes back to her apartment for the night. Wakes up, sees who is sleeping on his arm. He then cuts that arm off so he won't disturb her, and flees the apartment. That's the "coyote ugly" joke.

Of course if she is double coyote ugly, he cuts his other arm off because he know's that when she wakes up, she'll be looking for a one armed man.

Terrible thing to say about Jill Abramson--if that's what he meant.