Abramson at Wake Forest: ‘honor of my life’ to lead NYT newsroom

Former New York Times editor Jill Abramson waits on stage at Monday’s Wake Forest University commencement. (Photo by Caroline Olney)

Ousted New York Times editor Jill Abramson took the high road in a Wake Forest University commencement speech Monday, saying it “was the honor of my life to lead the newsroom.”

She told graduates to “show what you are made of” in the face of rejection.

“What’s next for me? I don’t know. So I’m in exactly the same boat as many of you,” she said.

Abramson described meeting with graduates last night after she arrived. “One of them asked me ‘Are you going to get that Times T that you have tattooed on your back removed?’ Not a chance.”

Her speech was her first public appearance since her abrupt firing as top news editor at the Times.

Publisher Arthur Sulzberger said Saturday in a statement that her firing was the result of management issues and that she had lost the support of masthead colleagues. He said complaints about her included “arbitrary decision-making, a failure to consult and bring colleagues with her, inadequate communication and the public mistreatment of colleagues.”

She addressed none of that directly. But in his introduction of Abramson, Al Hunt, Bloomberg View columnist and Wake Forest graduate, described her as “pushy” in her commitment to accountable reporting.

Abramson gave her speech on a clear day before more than 12,000 people. Her speech focused on resilience and persistence in the face of rejection.

“We human beings are a lot more resilient than we often realize. Resilient and persistent,” she said. It meant more to her father, she said, “to see how we deal with a setback … than to see how we deal with our successes.”

Abramson addressed the sacrifices journalists make in the face of government censorship. She honored her colleagues who have been detained, tortured and killed while reporting.

“New York Times journalists risk their lives frequently to bring you the best news report in the world. That’s why it is such an important and irreplaceable institution,” Abramson said. “It was the honor of my life to lead the newsroom.”

Despite her painful ouster from the Times, Abramson said she would continue to work in journalism: “Sure, losing a job you love hurts, but the work I revere — journalism that holds powerful institutions and people accountable — is what makes our democracy so resilient. This is the work I will remain very much a part of.”

She closed with a Robert Frost quote in which he describes life after graduation as “pieces of knitting to go on with.”

As the ceremony moved forward, honorary degrees were awarded, beginning with Abramson. She was awarded a doctor of humane letters degree for her devotion to a free and critical press.

Media outlets swarmed Wake Forest’s commencement to cover Abramson’s address. More than 50 representatives of the media from 30 to 40 different organizations attended. The attention
drew mixed reaction.

Wake Forest student Emily Unnasch received her juris doctorate degree today, but the media attention surrounding Abramson detracted from the occasion for her.

“Having a little bit of attention given to your commencement speaker is an exciting thing for graduates,” she said. “But at the same time, commencement ceremonies should be about the graduates, not controversy going on in the media.” But she added: “I liked her message of continuing on, facing failure head on. It was a good message for graduates today.”

John Llewellyn, associate professor of communications, said while the controversy surrounding Abramson drew more media attention than he’s seen at Wake Forest, it was not all negative. “She kept the graduates in focus, which was very well reasoned,” he said. “We have a good institution and the visibility helps the university’s reputation.”

More details to come.

Caroline Olney contributed to this report.

Stephanie Lamm, a North Carolina native, is a reporter for The Pendulum at Elon University. She is majoring in journalism and political science with a minor in history.

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