Forward Thinking

A Respectful Disagreement With Jill Abramson

By Jane Eisner

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First, I’ll note the obvious: For women like myself, who have been in journalism long enough to remember it as a defiantly male profession, the ascension of a smart, qualified, tough and interesting woman to the helm of The New York Times is just awesome. And that Jill Abramson is Jewish makes it all a little more thrilling.

So it is with some hesitation that I disagree publicly with something she said in her interview Sunday with the Times’s public editor. The offending sentence: “The idea that women journalists bring a different taste in stories or sensibility isn’t true.”

I beg to differ.

She went on to say that everybody at The Times recognizes and loves a good story. No quarrel with that. Good stories are the lifeblood of our profession; our weekly gathering at the Forward to brainstorm story ideas is, hands down, the best meeting of the week, which is surely why it routinely lasts much longer than scheduled.

But we all define a “good story” through our personal prisms and experiences, and my three-decades-and-some in journalism have shown me that, some times, women will see a story where men don’t, and vice versa.

A case in point: When I became editor of the Forward three years ago, I was immediately struck by the paucity of women in leadership roles in Jewish communal life. Having been part of a community in Philadelphia where women played a vital role in nonprofit and educational institutions – running large universities, giant foundations, acclaimed museums, and the like – I wondered why that didn’t seem true in the Jewish world.

But, as a colleague once taught me, the plural of anecdote is not data. So I needed to see whether my personal observation held true. That quest prompted what has become an annual Forward survey of the leaders (and salaries) of the men and women in the 75 largest Jewish organization in the U.S. And, sadly, not only was my initial observation correct, but our second survey found that the gender gap was growing. While there were 11 women serving as presidents and CEOs of federations, advocacy and public service groups, and religious institutions in 2009, by 2010, there were only nine. This was especially troubling because the majority of employees in these organizations are women. The trend has all sorts of implications for Jewish communal leadership, which is why we will continue to collect and publish this data every year.

Would a male editor have assigned the story? The evidence suggests not. But while I’m the first woman to hold my position, the Forward has had other woman editors who might have recognized this story, and didn’t. So gender is not necessarily predictive.

But some women do bring a different taste in stories, to quote Abramson, and that’s a good thing in a well-rounded news organization. I hope that during a very long and fruitful tenure at The Times, she will come to agree.

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