WINSTON-SALEM/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Ousted New York Times editor Jill Abramson struck a defiant note on Monday in her first public remarks since the newspaper fired her, urging a group of university graduates to fight back in the face of adversity.
“Some of you, and now I’m talking to anybody who has been dumped ... You know the sting of losing and not getting something you badly want. When that happens, show them what you are made of,” she said during a commencement speech at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.
Abramson’s remarks came less than a week after her dismissal by publisher Arthur Sulzberger, which has triggered accusations of sexism and management issues at the Times and cast a spotlight on the internal politics of its newsroom. Sulzberger is a member of the family that controls the New York Times Co.
David Carr, the newspaper’s media columnist, on Monday compared the fallout from her firing to a bloody episode of “Game of Thrones.”
The media frenzy surrounding the circumstances comes on reports that Abramson refused a payout package.
While she acknowledged the controversy, Abramson never directly addressed the acrimonious details during her speech.
Instead she touched on many influences in her life, including her parents, Katharine Graham - who led her family’s newspaper as publisher of The Washington Post, and her Times colleague James Risen.
She said her fighting spirit was lifted by a message sent to her last week by Anita Hill, the attorney who had accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during hearings on his nomination as U.S. Supreme Court justice in 1991. Abramson co-wrote a book with New Yorker writer Jane Mayer about Thomas.
“Anita wrote me last week to say she was proud of me. That meant so much,” Abramson said.
During her tenure at the Times, Abramson famously had the newspaper’s iconic “T” tattooed on her back. When asked if she was going to remove it, she answered “not a chance.”
“I thought it was great,” said Kelley Thompson of Maumelle, Arkansas, who was at Wake Forest to see her son graduate, after Abramson’s speech. “She approached it head-on. It was a difficult problem and she didn’t hide from it.”
Abramson was the first woman to serve as the top editor of the Times. She was replaced by her deputy Dean Baquet, who is the first African-American to lead the newsroom.
In a statement on Saturday, Sulzberger defended his actions, saying it was Abramson’s management skills that led to her firing. He ticked off a list of reasons for the decision, including Abramson’s “arbitrary decision-making and public mistreatment of colleagues.”
One incident that may have contributed directly to her dismissal was Abramson’s courting of Guardian editor Janine Gibson to serve as her deputy without informing other senior editors, according to media reports. That angered Baquet and Sulzberger, the reports said.
In his statement, the publisher also flatly denied accusations that Abramson was paid less as executive editor than her predecessor or she was fired because of her gender.
In closing her speech, Abramson related an anecdote about her mother’s knitting projects: some of them turned out and others were itchy, she said, but her mother never stopped working hard and taking chances.
“So today, you gorgeous brilliant people, get on with your knitting.”
Reporting by Ken Otterbourg in Winston-Salem and Jennifer Saba in New York; Editing by Christian Plumb, Frances Kerry, Sofina Mirza-Reid and Bernard Orr