Jun 24 • 1HR 36M

Jill Abramson On Journalism And Beltway Scandals

The former top editor at the NYT dishes on her long career in news.

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Unafraid conversations about anything

Jill is a journalist, academic, and the author of five books. She’s best known as the first woman to become executive editor at the New York Times, from 2011 to 2014. She’s currently a professor in the English department at Harvard. We’ve been friends forever.

You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player above (or click the dropdown menu to add the Dishcast to your podcast feed). For two clips of our convo — on whether women are better observational reporters, and looking back at the Supreme Court saga of “Long Dong Silver” — head over to our YouTube page.

We have a new transcript posted for posterity: Jamie Kirchick on his new history of gay Washington, recorded in front of a live audience at Twenty Summers in Ptown. If you missed it, here’s a teaser:

With Pride still marching along this month, a reader writes:

You frequently cover the takeover of the gay rights movement by transgender ideology, and how that can be at odds with the sex-based rights our generation fought for. I want to share a glimpse that I got at another under-discussed appropriation of the movement that’s significantly less threatening, but still leaves me feeling a bit out in the cold as a gay man: Pride going mainstream.

I live in a small Midwestern exurb that recently began hosting its own Pride parade. This is not a small event — the banners go up well before June and stick around much of the summer, and it draws a crowd on par with our largest town festivals. I’ve generally avoided it, assuming it would be chock full of pink-and-blue flags and wanting to spare myself the political frustration. I also figured that a Pride parade in a town like mine indicated how unnecessary Pride parades have become.

But this year I found out my (straight) brother was bringing his family, including my very young nieces and nephews. I wanted to see the kids, and I hoped my presence might provide some contrast to whatever left-wing antics they saw there. I was also curious how a Pride parade could possibly be family friendly enough for elementary school kids.

Long story short, the whole thing was incredibly anodyne. I saw a couple drag queens and exactly one trans flag, but otherwise you would think it was a parade to celebrate rainbows. There were a few other older gay men wandering around, looking as awkward as I was. I had been worried about how to explain things to the kids, but I don’t think they even realized there was any connection to myself or my husband — they were in it mainly to catch candy. I don’t even recall seeing the words “rights” or “equality” mentioned. The messages were along the lines of “Be Yourself” and “Love Wins!”

Afterwards, I learned that this event had been founded not by a homosexual, nor by a trans person, but rather by someone’s mother. Her daughter came out to her (I’m not even sure as what) and the mother decided she needed to show her daughter she was loved no matter what. And it all suddenly made sense. This was what a well-meaning mom wants to see when she sees gay pride. Be yourself! Love wins!

I don’t want to say this kind of thing should stop. It was a nice enough time, and I don’t disagree with the message. But, I do wish more people understood exactly how unrooted “Pride” has become from the gay culture that started it and the reasons it was necessary. As I explained to my own mother afterwards, I don’t know of any man who had ever been imprisoned or assaulted just for loving another man. It was always about sex, and it’s still about sex. We just can’t mention that at Pride anymore, I guess.

I suspect a great deal of this is a function of getting what we asked for — and the consequences of that taking root. Pride now is for straights as much as for gays — just as all the old super-gay events — like the High Heel Drag Race for Halloween in DC - went from being broken up by the cops (in my adult lifetime) to being packed with countless young straight women trying to be cool — and parents and all the letters of the alphabet. I’m made uncomfortable by some of this mass cultural appropriation — but that’s just my nostalgia for an era which I’m glad is now gone. We need to take yes for an answer, and as I wrote nearly 20 years ago, a very distinctive gay culture will end because of it.

If you missed last week’s pod with David Goodhart, here’s a primer:

This listener enjoyed the episode:

On the conversation with David Goodhart, I want to chime in about your argument that one of the great contributions of Christianity, historically, has been reminding smart people that they aren’t any better than anyone else — and might indeed be worse, because of the arrogance and ambition that often accompanies that trait. It reminded me of a seminal moment in my childhood.

I was 10, and I had just lost the regional spelling bee in a hard-fought match in which the last kid and I went several rounds before I made an error that he capitalized on. I turned to shake his hand. My dad told me later that night, “When you shook that boy’s hand, I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of you. You showed graciousness in a bitter moment, and it’s one of the hardest things to learn to do. I’m never going to be proud that you’re smart. That was a genetic luck of the draw and you had no more to do with it than you did with having brown hair or being a little scrawny. But how you responded is your character, and I DO care about that, and I am immensely proud of you.”

I think the fact that that was a consistent message at home when I was getting a lot of accolades at school probably made me marginally less unbearable than I would have been otherwise. I should say that my family is Southern Baptist; our faith was part of the warp and woof of daily life and the lens through which my parents interpreted life and what was worthy and valuable. Being smart was nice, but not nearly as important as being kind and generous and forgiving. I’m very grateful to have been raised like that.

Me too. Another listener also took the convo personally:

I’m so grateful for your episode with David Goodhart, which covered a topic that is both intensely personal and professionally important to me. My father is one of seven children of an Italian immigrant who was a short-haul truck driver. He almost flunked out of high school and only finished because his father threatened to kick his ass if he didn’t. 

Talking to my dad, any highly educated person would instantly dismiss his opinions and observations. But he wouldn’t care. After high school he started his own business — a car repair and towing company. After 40 years he retired with one million dollars, having bought our family home outright and having sent both my sister and myself to college, and me to law school. 

Yes, he did this through hard work and persistence, but he also did it through extremely competent business management and strategic savvy. He survived the shutdown of a local mine (70% of his business at the time), the recessions and gas shortages of the 1970's, cyclical recessions and more.  You don’t do that unless you know how to identify risks and opportunities and exploit them to your own advantage. If that isn’t intelligence, I don’t know what is.  

I myself work at a talent firm. My job entails creating a business model to help move junior enlisted veterans without college degrees into good-paying jobs with our skilled-manufacturing clients. It’s been fascinating to talk to companies who are still resistant to paying living wages at entry-level positions in the face of literally one million-plus competing job openings. I agree with Goodhart that reality is going to force a lot of rethinking about the value of labor of all kinds. It may take a while, but we are already seeing a few companies that are all-in on paying enough to attract this talent. They are far less nervous about the future.

Thank you for this episode, and please find more guests who want to discuss this topic: How to recognize and reward everyone’s strengths, and how to measure success in new ways.  

Another listener recommends a guest:

I’d love to see you interview Greg Clark, economic historian at UC Davis. His work on the heritability of social status is fascinating. Using surname data from England, he’s found that social status is strongly heritable but that it drifts back to the mean over many generations. So everyone’s ancestors will be elite or downtrodden eventually, but it might take 400 years. 

The key factor is assortative marriage and mating. Even before women had careers and got educations, you could predict the type of person a woman would marry by looking at the social status of her brother. Clark has shown how the same phenomenon exists in Scandinavia, China, etc. Most interestingly the data show that although income inequality is less in Scandinavian countries because of redistribution, educational and other achievements like admission to scientific societies, it’s just as unequal as other countries. They also show that even communist revolutions in China and Hungary didn’t prevent people with high social status names from reasserting dominance within a generation or two.

Twin studies and data where unexpected parental deaths happen show that the differences can’t be environmental. It’s just amazing and totally under reported for obvious reasons, but I do think this data will blow the lid off our current debate. It’s also great that Clark’s data is about white English people and doesn’t involve race at its core. (Here’s a link to one of his key research papers.)

I’ve been impressed with Clark since his book, A Farewell To Alms. It’s a great reader suggestion.