Thanks for the Great Foreign Coverage, Jill Abramson

New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson didn’t leave the paper on her own terms. In a reportedly awkward newsroom meeting on Wednesday — from which Abramson was conspicuously absent — the paper’s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, announced her departure and the elevation of the paper’s number two, Dean Baquet, into its top editing role. The ...

Brad Barket/Getty Images for WIRED
Brad Barket/Getty Images for WIRED

New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson didn’t leave the paper on her own terms. In a reportedly awkward newsroom meeting on Wednesday — from which Abramson was conspicuously absent — the paper’s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, announced her departure and the elevation of the paper’s number two, Dean Baquet, into its top editing role.

The decision to fire Abramson reportedly came after friction with top executives at the paper and concerns over her management style, but for all that, we can’t help but observe here at Foreign Policy that she has overseen a remarkable period in the paper’s international coverage and will be handing her successor what is arguably the best foreign desk in the world of daily journalism.

During her tenure, Abramson saw the paper win eight Pulitzers, several of which touched on the paper’s foreign coverage, including one for an investigative project about corruption in China and another about Wal-Mart’s role in Mexico. Taken together, the paper’s coverage of the world while Abramson held the reins has been marked by a dogged aggressiveness even in the face of reprisals from powerful governments.

In China, the paper’s correspondents have provided groundbreaking coverage of the wealth accumulated by the country’s political elites. David Barboza’s investigation of the sprawling business empire controlled by Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao, for example, earned won him a Pulitzer.

That reporting placed the paper in the cross-hairs of the Chinese government, which has since moved to deny Times reporters visas, a not-so-subtle hint that the government would like the paper to focus on something other than corrupt top-level officials. In a further retaliatory move, the Chinese government blocked the Times‘ Chinese-language site. Despite these pressures on the paper’s bottom line, Abramson maintained her commitment to investigations of the Chinese elite.

The same can’t be said for some of the paper’s rivals. While reporters at Bloomberg have done similar, admirable work examining the business holdings of Chinese government officials, top editors at the news organization have also allegedly caved to business pressures and killed certain stories on the topic. According to — you guessed it — a New York Times report, Bloomberg’s editor in chief, Matthew Winkler, killed two investigative stories about the wealth and privileges of the Chinese elite in order to prevent his reporters from being kicked out of China. The financial arm of Bloomberg also has a heavy interest in maintaining access to the Chinese market for its lucrative business terminals and would lose tremendous amounts of money if it were banned from mainland China.

There’s nothing to indicate Abramson made similar compromises during her tenure at the helm of the Times. In fact, the paper hired one reporter, Michael Forsythe, involved in the stories killed by Winkler. Shortly thereafter, his name appeared as the lead byline on a story about the government corruption inquiry targeting the country’s powerful former security chief, Zhou Yongkang.

At a time of upheaval in the Middle East, Abramson’s tenure was marked by similarly aggressive and exhaustive coverage of the region. In Egypt, where a decades-old military regime fell only to be replaced shortly thereafter by a new version of the same, the paper’s correspondent, David Kirkpatrick, distinguished himself by his coverage of the violent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, which went far beyond what many of his competitors were producing. Late last year, Kirkpatrick published a 7,000-word account of the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi which drew plaudits from many media critics but attracted fierce criticism from many Republicans angered that it largely exonerated the Obama administration from allegations that it failed to adequately protect the facility and then tried to cover up the fact that the attack was a well-organized act of terror and not a spontaneous explosion of popular rage.

Elsewhere in the region, the story is much the same. Shortly before Abramson took over the paper, four Times journalists were captured by Libyan government forces. But the paper didn’t pull back on its coverage, continuing to send correspondents into war-torn areas, including Syria, where the legendary Times journalist Anthony Shadid lost his life after an asthma attack.

In another example of the paper’s dogged reporting, the Times sent a pair of journalists to accompany a group of refugees trying to reach Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean. That decision was criticized by some as a foolhardy expedition that failed to recognize the enormous risks in such a journey, but the resulting article won a National Magazine Award earlier this month.

For yet another example of Times journalists putting their lives on the line to report a story, have a look at Tyler Hicks’s photographs from inside the Westgate mall in Nairobi, which was attacked by al-Shabab militants in September. Hicks won a Pulitzer for those photographs, which chronicled in bloody detail the aftermath of the militant attack and the ensuing operation to remove them from the mall complex.

Indeed, the aggressiveness of Abramson’s journalists in the field are of a piece with her own style, which may very well have resulted in her firing. In a lengthy August profile of Mark Thompson, the paper’s new CEO, New York magazine’s Joe Hagan described how Abramson clashed with the British import over who would determine the paper’s future. In a move said to have deeply angered Thompson, Abramson dispatched an investigative reporter to London to investigate the former BBC executive’s handling of a pedoph
ilia scandal at the network. What a welcome for the new boss.

To be sure, the Times‘ international coverage has stumbled at times. The paper was late to the recent anti-government protests in Venezuela. In Ukraine, the paper was a bit too eager and not quite sufficiently skeptical in running a set of photographs released by the State Department that purported to prove the presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine. A day after publishing those photographs, the Times ran a story buried deep inside the paper casting doubt on those claims. The paper also comes under frequent criticism from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that its coverage is slanted one way or the other.

But as the last 24 hours have made clear, an excellent news report was not enough to keep Abramson’s head off the chopping block. In an internal report on the paper’s digital strategy that preceded Abramson’s firing, a committee led by the publisher’s son, A.G. Sulzberger, concluded as much: "Of all the challenges facing a media company in the digital age, producing great journalism is the hardest. Our daily report is deep, broad, smart and engaging — and we’ve got a huge lead over the competition. At the same time we are falling behind in a second critical area: the art and science of getting our journalism to readers."

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @eliasgroll

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