How Jill Abramson is dealing with plagiarism fallout

February 11, 2019
Category: Business & Work

She is accused of committing one of journalism’s worst crimes. Her character is being torn apart. Her reputation is in question.

As the world took turns beating up Jill Abramson, what did she do?

“Over the weekend, I was mostly taking care of and playing with my grandchildren,’’ Abramson told Poynter on Monday afternoon. “And focusing on all that is right with my world.’’

What’s not right, at the moment, is her professional life. In the past week, Abramson has been accused of plagiarizing sections of her new book about journalism, “Merchants of Truth.’’

In a written statement last week, as well as in interviews with Vox and CNN’s “Reliable Sources,’’ Abramson said she made mistakes by not properly attributing sources in her footnotes. It’s an explanation that falls short in the minds of most. Still, she continues to disagree with those who claim she’s a plagiarist.

“I feel terrible that I made some completely unintended mistakes,” Abramson said.

Are those mistakes, whether they are called plagiarism or some other name, serious enough to permanently stain all she has done in a 46-year career that included being executive editor of the New York Times?

“I own these mistakes and they are embarrassing,” Abramson, 64, said. “It’s for other people to judge whether this creates a stain on my career. It’s not appropriate for me to judge that.’’

Many of those “other people” have spent the past several days attacking Abramson on Twitter so much that she stopped reading.

“Twitter is a savage environment, and at a certain point I just stopped going on Twitter,” Abramson said, “and had trusted friends and advisers to look at it and tell (me) if there is anything that I needed to know.”

No one needed to tell her what was being said. She already knew. Then again, Abramson has seen this before.

“I’m not like a newcomer to this kind of thing, meaning like a tweetstorm,’’ Abramson said.

But there were no such things as tweets the last time she remembers anything close to this. In 1994, she and Jane Mayer wrote a book about the nomination process of now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas called “Strange Justice.’’

“Conservatives attacked us savagely and very publicly and called us akin to Janet Cooke,’’ said Abramson. (In 1981, Cooke returned a Pulitzer Prize after it was discovered her 1981 story in the Washington Post about an 8-year-old heroin addict was fabricated.)

Besides playing with her grandkids, Abramson said she has kept busy in the past few days preparing to teach three-hour seminars on journalism Monday and Tuesday afternoons at Harvard University.

“I’m certainly open to talking about the controversy in class,” she said.

In fact, Abramson seems willing to answer any and all questions calmly when it comes to the controversy. She knows it’s a topic she needs to address. But it hasn’t stopped her from feeling pride in her book.

“Totally proud of (the) book,” Abramson said, “and I think in some ways what has happened in the past week is very reflective of many of the things I write about in the book.’’

So what happens now? Where does Abramson go from here?

She said she will continue teaching twice a week at Harvard. She expects to continue writing regularly for The Guardian and New York Magazine. She said she has no desire to ever run a newsroom again.

But she does remain optimistic about journalism.

“I am,” Abramson said, “because I think people are more interested in the news right now than they have been in the past and there’s a human desire for great storytelling.”

As far as the latest chapter in her career — a chapter that had her getting off Twitter, answering uncomfortable questions and retreating to the safety of her grandkids — Abramson refuses to let it consume her.

“I made errors,’’ Abramson said. “I feel terrible about them. I own them. They are mine. I’m like so heartsick that there are even a couple of factual mistakes … footnotes missing. That is sloppy and I feel terrible about it. But I don’t feel bitter about it at all.”

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  • This is a blatant and highly disturbing puff piece. Brian Stalter certainly had the guts to call out Abramson on Sunday, as did your own ethics editor. What gives with this utterly worthless piece?

    • Just a brief follow-up: I had a great chat with Tom Jones about this piece, and I understand why he wrote it the way he did. We do have a difference of opinion, and that is fine. He is a great guy and a caring journalist. Keep on to him!