Having lived through the bad old days of journalism, when aspiring, talented women might hope to rise from the secretarial pool to write book reviews or tidbits for what was called The Women’s Page (recipes, childrearing, fashion) to what in the 1970’s was reformatted with new names, no longer mentioning women but containing the same sort of downgraded news, I was elated to hear that Jill Abramson has been appointed the first women executive director of The New York Times: in effect, “the boss” (under the ownership of Arthur Sulzberger Jr. whom she credits with the Times’ undiminished commitment to excellence).
It was also encouraging to hear her mention the women whose “shoulders she has stood upon,” including other women at The Times, and specifically the columnist Maureen Dowd—at this point, I believe, the only woman with a regular column that paper carries.
For me, particularly—and perhaps I am alone in this category—it is bitter sweet to hear that family ownership allowed Abramson’s elevation, although there is not indication that the owning family specifically endorsed her. If we believe, as I do, that a belief in the excellence of women journalists is an essential part of a commitment to overall excellence—and representation—than the Sulzberger’s family’s endorsement seems a given.
Family ownership of the news was always believed to imply, at least in the best cases, a commitment to excellence (however defined—unbiased reporting, local bureaus, international coverage) rather than to the bottom line. In the old days, family ownership did not include fair treatment of women, who were often last hired, first fired, and spent their careers in the company’s lower echelons.
It is not true, even today, that faith in quality rather than profits includes faith in the ability of women to perform at the top levels in journalism or anywhere else, but Abramson’s elevation means hope for all of us who survived, more or less intact, the bad old days.