Jan 21 10:36 PM

Jill Abramson talks to John Seigenthaler

Jill Abramson, first female executive editor of The New York Times
Al Jazeera America

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden helped The New York Times "keep the public informed on what I consider to be very important matters," says Jill Abramson, the woman who has the final say on what constitutes "all the news that's fit to print." As executive editor of the Times — the first woman to hold what has been one of the most influential positions in American journalism — Abramson sets the agenda. We talk to her about what she calls the "most secretive White House" she has covered as well as the newspaper's "seriously flawed" coverage of the run-up to the Iraq War, which happened during her watch as Washington bureau chief. John Seigenthaler also asks Abramson about the future of print newspapers and about accusations that the Times is too far left.

John Seigenthaler: Let me dive right into the news and a little bit about the NSA and Edward Snowden. Daniel Ellsberg was quoted recently as saying that Edward Snowden was his hero. Do you see Snowden as a hero or a traitor?

Jill Abramson: I see him as a very good source. We have published many of the NSA and GCHQ (British intelligence) documents that came from Snowden. And so I view him, as I did Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, as a very good source of extremely newsworthy information. 

Edward Snowden did help The New York Times keep the public informed on what I consider to be very important matters.

Jill Abramson

Executive editor, The New York Times

Some things were published. Some things were not published. How do you make those decisions?

We make those decisions trying to apply common-sense balancing tests, where we respectfully listen to concerns of the U.S. government that publishing a story is going to actually harm national security, and we balance those concerns against the importance and newsworthiness of the information and our primary duty, which is to keep the public informed.

Is it comparable to the Pentagon Papers?

No, it's hard to say — in that situation, obviously, Daniel Ellsberg was the source. That material exposed really terrible, terrible official lies by the U.S. government, lies about the progress of the Vietnam War. And that made that material so consequential, I think, because of that. In this case, the material has provided a window into the scale of eavesdropping and all kinds of troubling things and some — certainly misstatements by officials, but I'm not sure they've exposed a wholesale cover-up and public lying over years and years the way the Pentagon Papers did.

On the editorial page, the Times editorialized, saying that Edward Snowden should be considered for amnesty. Do you get involved in the editorials?

I don't.

So do you agree, disagree, with the editorial's opinion when it comes to Edward Snowden and amnesty, or do you have an opinion?

I don't have an opinion. I value the fact that, by doing what he did, Edward Snowden did help The New York Times keep the public informed on what I consider to be very important matters.

The Obama administration has had seven criminal leak investigations. That is more than twice the number of any previous administration in our history.
Jill Abramson
The New York Times' Jill Abramson
Al Jazeera America

Let me move on to another topic in the Obama administration. How would you grade this administration, compared to others, when it comes to its relationship with the media?

Well, I would slightly like to interpret the question as "How secretive is this White House?" which I think is the most important question. I would say it is the most secretive White House that I have ever been involved in covering, and that includes — I spent 22 years of my career in Washington and covered presidents from President Reagan on up through now, and I was Washington bureau chief of the Times during George W. Bush's first term.

I dealt directly with the Bush White House when they had concerns that stories we were about to run put the national security under threat. But, you know, they were not pursuing criminal leak investigations. The Obama administration has had seven criminal leak investigations. That is more than twice the number of any previous administration in our history. It's on a scale never seen before. This is the most secretive White House that, at least as a journalist, I have ever dealt with.

And do you think this comes directly from the president?

I would think that it would have to. I don't know that, but certainly enough attention has been focused on this issue that, if he departed from the policies of his government, I think we'd know that at this point.

So it makes it more difficult for The New York Times to do its job.

Absolutely.

The White House does?

The White House does. And in the case of specific journalists, I would talk for a minute about Jim Risen, who is one of my most valued colleagues. In 2005, he is the reporter who, along with Eric Lichtblau, broke the story about the NSA's warrantless eavesdropping, which was, in a way, the first view we had into the world of the NSA's collection of data and communications. He has had this leak investigation hanging over his head for years now.

You were in Washington during at least the first term of George W. Bush. Was the media or The New York Times misled by the Bush administration when it came to the Iraq War?

Yes, we were.

Were we fooled?

There's no doubt about that. We were, I think, not diligent enough. I don't know if we were purposefully fooled. I think that there was a terrible echo chamber where unreliable Iraqi defectors were speaking both to members of the media and to intelligence officials and high officials in the Bush administration, and that an echo effect took hold, where, like, all the information was coming from one set of bad sources, but it seemed that multiple sources were confirming the information. And it created a kind of perfect storm. I'm not excusing it at all. I'm not excusing the Times' role in running some very seriously flawed stories, based on —

Judy Miller?

She was not alone. It was not only Judy Miller. There were, I think 10 or 12 stories that we ended up in an editor's note saying we had, you know, concerns about. And so I'm not, you know, minimizing that at all. But I don't think we know for certain that there was a purposeful, "Let's, you know, fool everyone" scheme hatched inside the Bush White House. But there's a serious lack of diligence and an unwillingness, I think, because the prevailing view in Washington was that there was intelligence supporting the idea that Saddam Hussein had an active WMD (weapons of mass destruction) program. There were dissenters inside the government. There were analysts at the CIA who thought, "This is flimsy, flimsy evidence to support that." But it's kind of — journalists were not listening as closely to them or trying hard enough to find those sources, and instead, you know, in a boom effect, were carrying these baseless stories from other sources.

At least, definitely, for the rest of my career, I'm going to be paying lots of attentions to both digital platforms and the print newspapers.

Let's talk a little bit about the newspaper itself right now. You know, I wake up in the morning, and I reach over to the night table, and I pick up my iPhone, and I call up The New York Times app rather than walk outside and pick up the newspaper itself, which is sitting there, which often doesn't get read. Is that something that happens to you?

I actually am a multiplatform reader. It depends on where and when I am, but I still get immense pleasure out of reading the print newspaper.

I do, too, but —

And spend at least an hour every morning, actually, even though I've read — I mean, we published a lot of the articles that are in the print paper on our website, and they've been published on our apps, too. But I still love, you know, just in some ways, the serendipity of seeing a story inside one of the sections that I didn't know about before, and you find yourself reading it, and you don't know quite why. But it's sort of a joyous experience, I think.

We share that love of print. I mean —

I know, but we're both of a certain age, I always say.

We are of a certain age, and my father was in the newspaper business.

Right.

And, I mean, I love the print, but honestly, going forward, do you see print in the future of the Times?

I think that in terms of the future — the next, let's say, 20 years — I think that we're going to be publishing digitally, and I think there still is going to be an audience for the print paper. I really do. We have over 800,000 home-delivery subscribers, who have taken the paper for two years or more. It's a very loyal base of readers. The newspaper is profitable still. And that doesn't mean that I don't recognize the reality that our much bigger audience is a digital audience, and that is the audience where our future growth will come from, for sure. But I do think, at least, definitely, for the rest of my career, I'm going to be paying lots of attentions to both digital platforms and the print newspapers.

Is there one story, then, that you're very proud of during your tenure at the Times?

I'm proud of an awful lot. Our journalists are the best journalists in the world. I'd say, since I've been executive editor, I'm proudest of the work that David Barboza has done in China, the story about the wealth and influence accumulated by the ruling families in China, because that was meticulous investigative reporting, where he went out and collected all kinds of local records and spent, like, more than a year.

What about the difficulty of reporting in China?

It's incredibly difficult. Now the difficulty is publishing in China, because our website is blocked in China right now.

Everybody has an opinion of The New York Times, so let's talk about some opinions of the Times. And in particular, The New York Times is often labeled as left-wing, liberal. How do you respond to that?

I respond to it by saying I think The New York Times represents a kind of cosmopolitan outlook towards the world and to this country and this city that may strike, you know, some readers as liberal because we have, you know, paid a lot of attention to stories like gay marriage, but these are newsworthy currents in our society.

But it's not liberal in the sense of being doctrinaire or tied to the Democratic Party in any way. You know, I've run many investigative stories and political stories that have made liberal political figures furious.

Right. But people also read the editorial page, and you get blamed —

Right.

Your news department gets blamed for what your editorial department says when they're viewing how — you know, whether the Times is a liberal paper or not, right?

Right. There's no question that the editorial stance of The New York Times is a liberal point of view.

I think The New York Times represents a kind of cosmopolitan outlook towards the world and to this country and this city.
NYT Building
The New York Times building in Manhattan.
Al Jazeera America

Women in journalism.

Yes.

Have you broken the glass ceiling?

You know, I'm always reluctant to say, categorically, anything like that. It's just a fact that I'm the first woman to have the job as executive editor, and it's been important to me to promote the careers of other women editors here at the Times who I think are incredibly talented. Right now, the masthead of the Times — which is sort of an obscure newspaper term, but it's the list of the top editors that runs every day on the editorial page of the newspaper — it's 10 people, and it's half women right now, which is, you know, a development that I feel happy about. When I got this job in 2011 it's not like I said, "By 2013, it's going to be half women," but —

But it was a priority?

It was a priority to make sure that other women rose up along with me during this period, yes.

One African-American in that group of 10.

Yes, which is not enough.

Is that not enough?

Not enough. And I would like to see the progress that we've made on the gender line apply equally to race and ethnicity and sexuality and you name it.

What do you think is missing now from The New York Times?

Cartoons.

Seriously?

I mean, well, we've never had cartoons. We run, you know, the review section runs one.

Political cartoons?

But we don't have, like, a strip, like "Doonesbury."

You'd like to see that?

I don't know. Maybe so. It depends on who's in what.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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