An Ink-Stained Wretch

Even by the melodramatic standards of newsroom intrigue, the latest dust-up at The New York Times is noteworthy for its nastiness. The acrimonious departure of executive managing editor Jill Abramson features accusations of sexism, a plea of poverty, and an intriguing tale of an ill-advised tattoo.
Abramson was installed as editor of the Times in 2011 amid much self-congratulatory hoopla about her being the first woman to hold that once-prestigious position, but was replaced on Thursday by former deputy Dean Baquet, who was introduced at a news conference where Abramson was conspicuously absent, and with much self-congratulatory hoopla as the first African-American to hold the once-prestigious post. The past three years of newspaper gossip have chronicled Abramson’s frequent clashes with both the staff below her and the family heir owner above her, but according to the insiders at The New Yorker the final conflict occurred when Abramson discovered that she was being paid less than her predecessor and concluded that sexism was the reason. The accusation is so embarrassing to the Times, which has crusaded relentlessly and often embarrassingly against real and imaginary sexism in other corner of American life, that it responded with a frank admission that its bottom line no longer allows for the generous compensation it once offered to the editors who oversee its precipitous decline in readership and ad revenues. Our occasional freelance work for the Times has not brought us anywhere near contact with Abramson, so we cannot attest to the veracity of any claims about her difficult nature, which of course have also led to accusations of sexism, but our long experience of the newspaper business suggests that the economic explanations are quite plausible.
In any case, we were more struck by the odd detail in the International Business Times that Abramson had celebrated her editorship by getting the modified serif font “T” from the Times’ distinctive masthead tattooed onto some undisclosed location on her body. The 60-year-old Abramson spoke of the tattoo last month on a podcast interview, and said she also had three others that included a representation of a New York City subway token and the trademark “H” of Harvard University to honor both her alma mater and the husband she met there, leaving listeners to speculate what the fourth tattoo looks like. We’re hoping it’s a big red “Mom” or a likeness of Betty Page, but we suppose that even in this day and age she’s entitled to some privacy regarding the matter. So long as she’s willing to speak of the modified serif “T” we’ll avail ourselves of a chuckle about it, though, as it reminds us of a heavily-tatooed friend of ours who is forever adorned with the name of an ex-husband on one of her formidable biceps. Abramson is still married to her Harvard beau, they’ll never take that degree away her from, and one can only hope that subway token will always retain its meaning for her, but that modified serif “T” is likely to be a painful reminder of lost love.
Even more painful to contemplate is what that tattoo says about both The Times and the times. Back when the Gray Lady was The Newspaper of Record and would settle a bet in almost any barroom in America, its editors did not have tattoos. They countenanced the likes of Walter Duranty whitewashing Stalin’s mass murders and Daniel Ellsberg’s espionage and Jayson Blair’s affirmative action fabrications and countless never-mind corrections, but at least they were serious enough they weren’t sitting next in line to some trendy twenty-something co-ed at the local tattoo parlor. It is saddening but no longer surprising to learn that someone so high in the still-influential world of journalism is trying to keep up with the teenaged hipsters, as the age of the grown-up has clearly passed. A recent Wall Street Journal editorial rightly bemoaned the “selfie-taking, hashtagging” administration, where National Security Council members dismiss the Benghazi scandal by saying “Dude, that was, like, two years ago,” and the President of the United States is doing late night comedy bits with the hippest hosts and denouncing the opposition party’s proposals as a “stinkburger,” so it should be expected that those covering their reign with proper respect have a similar sense of style. This might not have anything to do with the rapid decline of the newspaper industry or the similarly rapid decline of the country, but it seems an interesting coincidence.

— Bud Norman

Presidential Funeral Etiquette

Attending funerals isn’t an especially challenging chore. All you have to do is dress in formal but not flashy attire, maintain a somber expression throughout the proceedings, and avoid speaking ill of the guest of honor. It’s so simple, in fact, that the job is routinely entrusted to vice presidents.
Even so, President Barack Obama somehow managed to cause not just one but two separate controversies on Tuesday while attending the funeral for former South African President Nelson Mandela.
One flap involved some seemingly inappropriate levity with Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt during the service. A series of widely-disseminated photographs show the two sharing laughs while Mandela is being eulogized, even as the dignitaries seated around them remain properly glum, and it can only be hoped that they’re not scoffing at the kind words being said. Some small amount of chuckling is permissible at funerals if shared between old friends recalling some endearing anecdote about their shared relationship with the deceased, but this is not a likely explanation for the yucks as neither Schmidt nor Obama ever met Mandela. In one of the photographs the pair smilingly pose for a “selfie” on the small camera Obama holds at arm’s length, which is a breach of etiquette at any funeral even in these coarse times. The photographs also suggest a sort of flirtatiousness between Obama and Schmidt, who is fairly attractive by head of state standards, and judging by the sour look on Michelle Obama’s face she seems to have noticed it as well.
A more significant controversy concerned Obama’s handshake with Cuban dictator Raul Castro. The gesture thrilled such excitable news commentators as CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, who squealed with delight that Mandela “brought people together in life and he continues to bring people together today,”, and it gave former President Jimmy Carter hope that it will lead to friendlier relationships with Cuba, but more sensible observers such as Arizona Senator and failed presidential candidate John McCain were put off by such cordiality toward a murderous communist dictator. White House officials were quick to downplay the handshake, insisting it was not a “pre-planned encounter,” and noted that Obama’s eulogy included a subtle swipe at the unnamed countries that fail to lie up to Mandela’s ideal of freedom. The handshake was more noteworthy than the forgettable eulogy, which was also a sort of “selfie” that suggested Mandela’s greatest achievement in life was inspiring the career of Obama, but it’s nice to know that the president is at least sensitive to the soft-on-communism charge that has dogged him throughout his political career.
All in all, it was a rather poor funeral performance by the president. On the other hand, at least he didn’t bring his dog.

— Bud Norman