When Jill Abramson was the only grown-up in the Times building

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Jill Abramson. ()
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Jill Abramson will be the new top editor of The New York Times, which will make her the first woman to run the editorial side of the world's greatest news organization. Whether or not that fact relates to the reasons that I believe she'll be the best one in a very long time I'll leave to others to analyze.

It's not her first such "first." Jill Abramson was chief of the paper's Washington bureau back in August 2003 when it was announced that the paper's new executive editor, Bill Keller, was appointing her managing editor for news. It was effectively the No. 2 editorial position on the masthead, and the highest a woman had yet climbed.

If you can put yourself back in 2003, you'll remember they were heady times for big, muscular journalism operations. Operation Iraqi Freedom had been launched from the Oval Office in March, with the rationale that Saddam Hussein was amassing weapons of mass destruction.

The lead-up to the war had seen intense competition among journalists to determine whether W.M.D.s were present in Iraq, and Abramson and her reporter Judith Miller were ambitious to break news in the story out of Washington, though the Times had reporters working on the ground in Iraq. Looking back on the coverage, Franklin Foer wrote in New York in 2005, "During the winter of 2001 and throughout 2002, Miller produced a series of stunning stories about Saddam Hussein’s ambition and capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction, based largely on information provided by Chalabi and his allies—almost all of which have turned out to be stunningly inaccurate."

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At the time of Foer's writing, the Times had spent almost a year correcting the record with more and new reporting, culminating in an Editor's Note from Keller about the paper's coverage. It's worth extracting at length here.

The problematic articles varied in authorship and subject matter, but many shared a common feature. They depended at least in part on information from a circle of Iraqi informants, defectors and exiles bent on "regime change" in Iraq, people whose credibility has come under increasing public debate in recent weeks. (The most prominent of the anti-Saddam campaigners, Ahmad Chalabi, has been named as an occasional source in Times articles since at least 1991, and has introduced reporters to other exiles. He became a favorite of hard-liners within the Bush administration and a paid broker of information from Iraqi exiles, until his payments were cut off last week.) Complicating matters for journalists, the accounts of these exiles were often eagerly confirmed by United States officials convinced of the need to intervene in Iraq. Administration officials now acknowledge that they sometimes fell for misinformation from these exile sources. So did many news organizations — in particular, this one. …

Some critics of our coverage during that time have focused blame on individual reporters. Our examination, however, indicates that the problem was more complicated. Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper. Accounts of Iraqi defectors were not always weighed against their strong desire to have Saddam Hussein ousted. Articles based on dire claims about Iraq tended to get prominent display, while follow-up articles that called the original ones into question were sometimes buried. In some cases, there was no follow-up at all.

At this point, Abramson had already spent almost two years outside of Washington. But when she was appointed, Keller told Howard Kurtz, then still a columnist at The Washington Post: "I know for a certainty she'll tell me when I'm doing something stupid. I also know she won't tell you when I'm doing something stupid."

But another thing had been going on during her time at the Washington bureau: Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., whom she'd known from a previous stint in Washington, had appointed Howell Raines executive editor of the paper. Much has been published about the strained relationship between Abramson and Raines. In another article for New York, Joe Hagan wrote about an encounter between James Risen, a reporter working in Iraq, and Abramson during her time as bureau chief:

When she was Washington bureau chief under Raines, Risen has claimed to at least two people, he offered her reporting that cast doubt on the Bush administration’s evidence about Iraq’s WMD program. At the time, Miller’s reporting was how the Times, as an extension of Raines, saw the subject. And Abramson felt powerless to fight Raines over this and other things. When Risen pressed his case, she finally told him to “get with the program,” these people say.

Abramson declined to comment on the anecdote but told Hagan that she was a little powerless to overcome Raines on the question of how to cover W.M.D. from Washington, and how to cover Washington generally: "[A] a lot of days, I didn’t necessarily feel like I was really the bureau chief,” Abramson told Hagan. Raines, for his part, had a retort: “If Jill skewed or suppressed stories from Jim Risen or anyone else she did so on her own hook, not as a result of any instruction or signal from me. It was a point of tension between Jill and me that we were consistently behind on weapons and intelligence stories,” he wrote in an email to Hagan.

When Howell Raines was kicked out, in the public eye mostly for the misdeeds of a certain rising-star young reporter named Jayson Blair but largely because of what the Blair case represented internally to the Times about the Raines style of management and what it was doing to the paper, there was not yet anything to apologize for in the treatment of W.M.D.

But Abramson knew that there had been. She, along with a group of other editors regularly at odds with Raines, emerged in the Bill Keller era as a Raines counterrevolution. Raines' greatest victims became Keller's greatest stars. If the culpability for reporting on W.M.D. in that era was a giant, corporate one, there was a temptation to think that with Howell Raines out the door, the culpability had walked out the door, too.

Through all of the sturm und drang of the Times' hand-wringing over its W.M.D. coverage in the years 2004 and 2005, Abramson was quite above much of it.

And then, an extraordinary thing happened. In a Sept. 2008 review of Bob Woodward's book, The War Within, long after anyone had ceased asking whose "fault" the paper's Iraq coverage was, Abramson rather suddenly takes to the first person:

In “Plan of Attack” Woodward acknowledges an error of his own: he admits he should have pushed The Washington Post to publish a front-page article about the flimsiness of the intelligence on W.M.D. I was Washington bureau chief for The Times while this was happening, and I failed to push hard enough for an almost identical, skeptical article, written by James Risen. This was a period when there were too many credulous accounts of the administration’s claims about Iraq’s W.M.D. (including some published in The Times and The Post).

Abramson also could have pushed another story here. She could have pushed into the public the story told privately by many inside the Times who understand the contours of the counter-Rainesian-revolution force who are now top dogs at the Times, including Keller himself, Jon Landman and others. It's not a pretty period of Times history, and mistakes made during that era have the final and ineradicable mark of Raines upon them for much of the Times masthead.

That's what made Abramson's act a deeper sort of redemption than the one the Times attempted by firing Raines, and by writing all those long self-exposing essays that appeared mostly to attribute corporate guilt, and to relegate the past to the past as though it presaged nothing for the future, created no responsibility for anyone.

She failed to push hard enough, she said. And so, the W.M.D. reporting failure of the Times was her failure, too. 

Contrast that with her publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr.'s account to Charlie Rose:

What's critical to remember here is that we made errors in our coverage of the weapons of mass destruction. We made them at the reporting level and at the editing level. We owned those errors in a very long and very detailed editors' note, and that was then over.

That's over now. [Miller is] now a retired employee of the New York Times. And the New York Times will move forward. And that's what's important here.

To my knowledge, Abramson is still the first person to say "I" with respect to this era in the Times history. At the time, Slate critic Jack Schafer compared Sulzberger to Scott McClellan, writing:

Sulzberger's jabber differs not one whit from the standard bullshit—"Move along folks, there's nothing here to see"—issued by every politician and corporate leader who finds himself trapped in the media's cross hairs. When a news subject relies on such transparent talking points as "it's time to move on," reporters know the story is only beginning.

As for the "very long and very detailed editors' note" acknowledging the Times errors to which Sulzberger refers (actually titled "From the Editors"), it measures a meager 1,150 words, about the same length as the column you're reading.

At one time at the Observer, my boss Peter Kaplan used to like to say, "For us, for our readers, the Times is more powerful than the State Department. So cover the Times the way the Times covers State."

In the case of the W.M.D. reporting, the Times -State Department analogy had a weird, convoluted neatness to it. And somehow, the Times' "who, me?" cuteness, caginess about its mistakes and the extent of its power, all came crashing down on me in what felt like a fit of revelations as the scandal unspooled.

I was pretty sure Bill Keller knew what decisions in Washington meant for people in far-flung parts of the world, and therefore in turn what the coverage in the country's most influential newspaper ("The Paper of Record" it's called!) meant for the outcomes of those decisions. He was smart, and tough, and I was pretty excited when he came in to replace Raines because of his experience reporting on regime changes all over the world, and for the fact that he served as foreign editor himself.

That's part of why the beginning of Keller's column in The New York Times Magazine (which is mostly a harangue about Arianna Huffington) is, to me, not just silly and annoying but disturbing:

According to the list makers at Forbes, I am the 50th most powerful person in the world — not as powerful as the Pope (No. 5) but more powerful than the president of the United Arab Emirates (56). Vanity Fair, another arbiter of what matters, ranked me the 26th most influential person in the country. The New York Observer, narrowing the universe to New York, put me 15th on its latest “Power 150,” a list that stretches from Michael Bloomberg to Lady Gaga. New York magazine asked Woody Allen to name the single most important person in our city; he named — aw, shucks — me.

That in the same space he can say all this and admit that his organization bears some responsibility for the United States' involvement in the Iraq miltary campaign boggles my mind.

I can construct a fairly neat storyline, one I'll go with for now, in which one of the reasons Abramson is the best person to run the Times at this moment is that she is one of the very few people in the building (however much Sulzberger may like to give Charlie Rose neat quotes from his grandfather)* who really understands what the Times is and what it can do for good or evil, and who understands her own responsibility in the job of running it. She learned it in the hardest possible way.

* And here's my mea culpa: In an earlier version of this story this line read "his grandfather Adolph Ochs," and that's not right: Ochs is his great-grandfather. But I took my example from watching a very long video interview and can't go back and check yet which quotes are from which ancestor. At any rate, he has definitely quoted both so I'm leaving it at "grandfather" for now.