What Hollywood Can Learn From the Jill Abramson Controversy

Jill Abramson New York Times Fired
Brad Barket/Getty Images

In an era of kinder and gentler bosses, women power players confront new expectations

The evisceration of Jill Abramson as executive editor of the New York Times earlier this month has sparked spirited debate across the media landscape. Does a sexist double standard still exist in the world of top management? Do some male executives pursue a style of aggressive management behavior that would not be tolerated from women?

Abramson was a brilliant, forceful editor who moved fast and talked tough. Her publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., a scion of the family dynasty that has run the paper for more than a century, evidently decided a more benign presence was needed at the top of his famously quarrelsome news organization. He installed Dean Baquet, a talented and notably diplomatic editor, who becomes the first African American to occupy the top Times job.

Sulzberger’s decision triggered a fusillade of intrigue: Was Abramson being paid as much as her male predecessor? Had she named too many women to senior editorial positions? Were some of her hires (men and women both) not up to the job?

The storm of pontification about Abramson’s ouster became so fierce that Sulzberger was forced to issue a statement a few days later defending his decision. “I concluded that she had lost the support of her masthead colleagues and could not win it back,” he explained, denying claims of unequal pay.

All this resonates strongly in the media community, where events heralding the power of women take place virtually every week. Women now are among the senior power players in the film and television hierarchy — a major change from a generation ago. And many are far from shrinking violets. Nor should they be.

I remember that transitional moment in the movie business a generation ago when Dawn Steel took command at Paramount. Quick-tempered and fiercely outspoken, Steel provided a sort of shock therapy to agents and producers who assumed a female studio chief would be a pushover. Later, Sherry Lansing occupied her job, ruling even more effectively, but with a calm and gracious presence.

Women and men alike quickly discover a key reality when they assume power: Being liked cannot be a priority, but being abrasive does not produce results either, especially in a world dominated by the social media. Mark Zuckerberg noted recently that Facebook is about “loving the people we serve,” but more often its subtext is about exacerbating the anxieties of its followers. A recent study by a UCLA psychologist suggests that social media tends to trigger more apprehension over rejection and exclusion than to stir reinforcement about participation.

This underscores that in the media and entertainment business, where anxieties flourish, there is a greater need for positive reinforcement than for ironclad discipline. Employees want love from their bosses; they demand it from their female bosses. In a sense, therein lies the double standard.

The behavior of Hollywood’s new generation of leaders seems to reflect this phenomenon. A courtly Donna Langley rules Universal studios; Warner’s hyper Jeff Robinov is out. Similarly, the press-savvy and people-friendly Richard Plepler sits atop the HBO throne, where the deliberately intimidating Michael Fuchs once held court.

This not to say the tough-guy image (e.g., Ari Gold) has disappeared from the power fraternity. But no smart female leader today would set out to cultivate that bellicose, bullying personality. Men and women alike increasingly want their leaders to be kinder and gentler. Indeed, the tenor of corporate life, with its human resources tyrants hovering in the background, seems to demand it.

Abramson was a damn good editor, but even her photos look too intense.

Her successor, Baquet, has worked all over the media landscape — he even survived the self-destructive madness of the Los Angeles Times. The struggling New York Times needs a man for all seasons. Abramson was more a lion in winter.

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  1. Richard Thomas says:

    Mr. Bart,
    Nice article on a 2000 year old problem. You’re talents deserve better. Will be giving you a real scoop soon. Ask Skip and Ari.

  2. TheBigBangOf20thCenturyPopCulture says:

    I’m guessing, but I rather doubt her ousting was a sexist power play. Some people are simply not meant to babysit the chaotic social media mess that modern journalism has become. It’s the fickle news beat business model that is the problem. Many newspapers have not transitioned well to the digital age because success in millennial media is not about the news or the writer, it’s about the cloud response to it. In a cyberspace culture where info wants to be free, net news copy is just filler between ad space.

  3. Hans Dieter Ulrich says:

    Dawn steel used to compare herself to Barry Diller, saying that when Diller behaved abrasive lay people called him tough, but when she did it they called her a bitch. As a recipient of abuse from both I can say that the error in her assumptions was in thinking people admired Diller for being abusive or difficult. Nothing could be farther from the truth. No one admired Diller for being harsh, they admired him and tolerated the abuse because he was/is brilliant. Everyone who has ever worked for Barry Diller, even if they hated it, will say they did their best work under his supervision. At Columbia you just felt like the unwanted house pet being tortured for amusement.

  4. Did you ever think she may not have been good at her job? If it was a man who was fired, no one would even be discussing this in the media,

    It is clear that the reporter above doesn’t understand what leadership and being a boss is all about making this article moot.

  5. GKN says:

    “Employees want love from their bosses; they demand it from their female bosses – therein lies the double standard.” Very well put!

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