Newsroom B*tches, An Appreciation

http://www.dreamstime.com/-image18167828I have no idea whether New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson is difficult to work with or not. I’ve never met her.

Still, I was unsurprised when Politico’s Dylan Byers posted a story this week saying that “more than a dozen current and former members of the editorial staff … described her as stubborn and condescending, saying they found her difficult to work with.”

Because, as a writer, I’ve described pretty much every editor I’ve ever worked for as stubborn and condescending at some point. Occasionally, they actually were.

More importantly, though, it’s a widely understood truism that women who work in newsrooms are, in fact, bitches. The supposed case against Abramson, that she has a “brusque approach,” “can seem disengaged or uncaring,” and has the ability to “cut someone off at the knees,” is one that could be made against virtually any woman who dares not to act like a Mommy all the time. And, let’s be clear, the skills necessary to succeed as a reporter, like, say, making your voice heard at a press conference, are not soothing, lullaby-singing skills.

Byers, for the record, insists that he was not being sexist in his reporting and that he would have written the story the exact same way if Times staffers were making the same complaints about a male editor. Of course. And, obviously, it would have been even more sexist to ignore this very important story about Abramson just because she’s a woman. Right.

My own immersion in newsroom culture brought me face-to-face with the reality behind this supposedly gender-neutral construct. When I joined the staff of the Chicago Sun-Times, I was welcomed onto the staff without the slightest hint that my female-ness made any difference to anyone. (Well, okay, that’s not exactly true, but we’re leaving lecherousness of the equation here for a moment. The point is that no one held it against me that I was a woman.) Of course I noted that the vast majority of those in positions of power (the news editors and columnists) were men, but I figured that was a generational thing, bound to change over time. The gender dynamic that was most striking, really, was that the few women who had real seniority and clout in the news department seemed, well, mean. I remember asking one of them a straightforward question about how best to reach out to a certain public figure – one she interviewed and quoted with regularity – to confirm a story we were running in the next day’s paper: our interaction quickly devolved into her standing behind my chair dictating a story to me in a tone that registered her total contempt for my stupidity. It might have been nice, I thought bitterly, had she offered some support for a young woman following in her footsteps, rather than being so nasty.

It did not dawn on me then that the few women who’d managed to thrive in the old school newsrooms of the 70s and 80s had no choice but to be tough as nails. It didn’t register that they were, uniformly, single or childless or both. The personal decisions that had led to their professional success were invisible to me then, in my naiveté. I just wondered why they weren’t nicer.

It was only later when, while on maternity leave, my column was unceremoniously moved from the paper’s news section to the features section, that I got the slightest inkling of what those women had been up against. Until having a baby, I’d been treated as one of the boys. And I’d kept up. But without consulting me, without my consent, I was kicked out of their ranks.

In one of the more telling moments of the drama that ensued, an editor insisted to me that being moved from news to features was not a demotion. The next day, my column ran in the features section. And my name – the byline I’d had for years – was misspelled. At that point, it was hard to argue, even for him, that the quality and status of the two sections was the same.

I quit.

In retrospect, it was the best decision I ever made. I am eternally grateful that I am not, at this moment, clinging to a career in print journalism, a dying enterprise if ever there was one.

My righteous indignation at the culture that so underestimated me and held my choices in such contempt fueled the drive that helped me build my own business. Like so many women entrepreneurs, I didn’t know I had this in me until someone had the nerve doubt me. My former bosses did not seem to believe that I could combine motherhood with an enthusiastic pursuit of professional excellence. It’s been a pleasure proving them wrong.

Still, to this day, I feel I have some unfinished business at the paper. I didn’t leave the way I would have liked to. And I didn’t get to apologize to those newsroom bitches. They deserved my admiration, not my contempt.

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