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Influencers Transcript: Jill Abramson, February 14, 2019

ANDY SERWER: Welcome to "Influencers." I'm Andy Serwer. Our guest this week is former "New York Times" executive editor Jill Abramson who recently released a book titled "Merchants of Truth," which chronicles how media companies old and new are grappling with the digital age.

Last week, we taped an interview with Abramson before a controversy that erupted following the book's release. We'll show you the interview momentarily, but first we want to address the controversy. Abramson was accused of plagiarism-- entire paragraphs in question were found to closely resemble those in articles published before Abramson's book was released.

We reached out to Abramson for a follow-up interview to address the allegations, and she declined. Abramson did release the following statement. Quote, "I was up all night going through my book because I take these claims of plagiarism so seriously. In writing "Merchants of Truth" I tried above all to accurately and properly give attribution to the many hundreds of sources that were part of my research.

The notes don't match up with the right pages in a few cases and this was unintentional and will promptly be corrected. The language is too close in some cases and should have been cited as quotations in the text. This, too, will be fixed. All the ideas in the book are original. All the opinions are mine. The passages in question involve facts that should have been perfectly cited in my footnotes and weren't."

I'm here with Yahoo Finance reporter Melody Hahm who got a chance to ask Abramson a question on the night after the whole controversy came to a head. Melody.

MELODY HAHM: How do you gain the trust of consumers or even critics who are continuously pushing back, saying, hey, how are we supposed to believe you? How are we supposed to believe the rest of the book if there are so many errors that you are acknowledging and admitting to?

JILL ABRAMSON: I think that's a really fair question and something I really worry about. But all I can do and hope for is that the people actually read the book see it is scrupulously reported and accurate and very fair in its judgment.

Other than correcting things that need to be corrected, I don't know exactly how-- I have to work to win back some trust and your trust. And I will work really hard to do that both in promoting the book-- which I really think is a great I want people to read-- and in the other work I do too.

I'll be ever, ever vigilant and that's how we should always be. If I've let you down or anyone down, I feel terrible about that.

ANDY SERWER: So, Melody, what was the reaction by the audience to your question and her answer?

MELODY HAHM: So, first of all, Andy, the reaction from both Amy and Jill was-- that's a fair question. And that's something that I should be talking about. Jill, unfortunately, did not answer the question very appropriately, because the way that I worded my question was, how are you going to regain trust that you may have lost-- regardless of how minute or how sloppy you have classified these accusations?

And, to be honest, she didn't give that fulfilling of an answer. And it was interesting because after the Q&A portion, three different people came up to me saying, I'm glad you asked that question. I'm surprised that that wasn't brought up in further conversation. So I think in general, everyone had the same thought, but, unfortunately, not everyone is thinking it's the appropriate time to be asking it, especially because it was a conversation between two people who clearly were very close.

And Amy off the top basically said it's awkward for me to be asking you this as my mentor and as my former boss.

ANDY SERWER: Well, I'm glad you were there to ask the question then. It's ironic, isn't it, Melody, that she was writing about these news organizations-- in particular "Vice" and "BuzzFeed" and in particular with regard to "Vice" saying that they didn't abide by traditional journalistic standards and rules. They played fast and loose. They brought material together-- aggregated stuff. And yet she was maybe guilty of some of those same problems.

MELODY HAHM: Yes, that's the thing. The premise of this book, I think, is in direct contrast with the argument that she's trying to make-- or her flaws that she ended up committing in this book. She has still not acknowledged the fact that this is considered plagiarism.

I think she continues to stand by this idea that it's a few mistakes-- a few corrections that needed to be made. And even Simon & Schuster the publisher has said she will make the corrections immediately in the e-book version and for future publication. Those corrections will be made, but they didn't leave the door open for further room in case there are other allegations that are brought up.

I also think it's interesting because the "Vice" writer, Michael Moynihan, who first brought these allegations to light, he didn't even intend to be finding plagiarism accusations. It was moreso he was trying to investigate something that his colleague at "Vice" had claimed was an error in the book about "Vice" itself. And then as he did more digging, he is saying via Twitter that a lot of it ended up coming to light.

ANDY SERWER: You have to wonder what it's going to do for sales of the book. And, perhaps even more significantly for Abramson, what this means for her teaching position at Harvard.

MELODY HAHM: Exactly. So she has a teaching position at Harvard. She also is a columnist at "The Guardian" currently. I am curious to see whether those two responsibilities-- and those are her jobs currently-- will end up being at risk given the situation. And I have a feeling that they will be.

I also did ask her as a follow-up-- do you think your book sales will be helped by this controversy, if anything? And she said, no, without skipping a beat.

ANDY SERWER: Right and in this day and age of accusations of fake news, I heard other journalists, Melody, saying this is all we need-- more fodder for different people to suggest that the news media can't be trusted.

MELODY HAHM: Yeah. And, Andy, you have read a good chunk of this book. And, as someone who has read this book, you said it's a very good, honest, interesting, provocative assessment of the media industry. So it is kind of a shame because the content is compelling. But, unfortunately, that has been drowned out by a lot of the accusations.

ANDY SERWER: Yeah, it's a great read, and it's just unfortunate that now that these allegations have come to light, Melody, I can't stop but thinking every time I'm reading something, well, is this cited correctly or not?

MELODY HAHM: Exactly.

ANDY SERWER: Melody Hahm, thanks very much for coming by.

MELODY HAHM: Thanks.

ANDY SERWER: Now that we've had that discussion, here's my edited conversation with former "New York Times" executive editor Jill Abramson.

You decided to look at the news business by examining, I guess, four companies-- the "Washington Post," the "New York Times," "Vice," and "BuzzFeed." And what's interesting to me besides everything is the fact that the two upstarts-- "Buzzfeed" and "Vice"-- were ascending when you started the book and the "Washington Post" and "New York Times" were sort of on shaky ground.

And now they seem to have swap places. Why do you think that is, Jill? What's going on there?

JILL ABRAMSON: There are a number of factors as to why you know the new, shiny stars who were up and the legacy, great newspapers who were still a little wobbly switched hats, essentially. And one reason is the dominance and hugeness of social media, especially Facebook-- but also Google-- that "Vice" and "BuzzFeed," who are the new players and my story really were built on the backs of those companies.

Because "Vice's" distribution system was YouTube, which was bought by Google. And "BuzzFeed" would really not have existed at all without social media sharing and especially Facebook. But now, as anyone in the news media business knows, Facebook and Google are eating up every bit of digital advertising.

So the host is kind of starving what were the new-- I don't want to call them parasites exactly-- but they're starving their young. And Jonah Peretti, the head of "BuzzFeed," has become quite a critic of Facebook for not paying the people who give them their content-- enough money. They don't share the wealth.

ANDY SERWER: Right. And there is an irony there. And, to your point, they're so beholden-- they became so beholden that that became problematic.

JILL ABRAMSON: The other reason for the switcheroo is obviously Trump's election. And, in some ways, I really do believe that his rants about fake news and enemies of the people-- his base loves that, but I think it has encouraged a lot of informed readers to feel with Facebook and fake news and whatnot that it's best to return to trusted news organizations that have a great record of accuracy and reliability.

And so the "Washington Post," and especially the "Times" have seen their paid subscriptions soar since the 2016 election.

ANDY SERWER: More ironies. But the business is under assault, Jill, from so many directions, I guess. I mean, you've got-- you talk about the social media companies, the president-- enemies of the people-- fake news, real fake news, and the president accusing news of being fake, digital disruption, the business model.

JILL ABRAMSON: Video.

ANDY SERWER: Video.

JILL ABRAMSON: Hulu, Netflix-- these are all now content creators in competition with one another. The "Times" is about to unveil you know "The Weekly," which is going to be a TV version of the popular podcast "The Daily." So everyone has become digital first and very multimedia.

ANDY SERWER: I mean, is there any way that you can sort of anticipate what things are going to look like five years or 10 years from now?

JILL ABRAMSON: You know, that is hard. But I actually think the print newspaper-- not loads of them-- but that the big national and global newspapers-- The "Wall Street Journal," the "Times," and I think likely the "Washington Post" too-- I don't know about "USA Today." But I think they're going to be around in print.

But it's difficult and it's much easier, let's say, to glom all of the Trump stories together, one after the other. And one of the apps that the "Washington Post" called the Post Most even puts the opinion content that's about Trump interspersed. So some days, I can do three scrolls and I'm not beyond Trump in the headlines.

ANDY SERWER: There is more news being created now, Jill, than ever before in the history of the planet. And, as a consumer, what are we to do? I mean, how do we find our news? When you talk to people-- I mean, there's the Facebook news feed.

JILL ABRAMSON: There's Apple news-- brand new that actually uses some human editors and tries to get more of a cross-section ideologically of news providers, which I think is kind of interesting and good. But people are on Twitter-- they're just buried in news. And we've learned to have a Pavlovian response when breaking news from CNN comes on our phone.

We're drowning in news and, yet, the news itself has never been more important.

ANDY SERWER: I agree with that. I feel like there's got to be an opportunity for some sort of curated, aggregated model that doesn't exist. I mean, there's a lot of aggregated-- yes-- and our own company Yahoo does it-- but not for around the curve yet to my mind.

JILL ABRAMSON: I think that's true. And in my book, I talk about the number of aggregation products that are out there. And I don't know about you, but on a given morning, I can spend like an hour and a half before I've budged to go to work reading "Axios," reading "Politico," which has various morning newsletters.

The "Times" is briefing, the "Washington Post," "202." I can just get stuck.

ANDY SERWER: It's overwhelming.

JILL ABRAMSON: And I think if it's overwhelming for me who's spent my life in the news profession, for the average person who just wants quality information, it must be very intimidating and confusing.

ANDY SERWER: So if the "New York Times," and maybe, to a degree, the "Washington Post"-- but let's just say the "Times"-- used to be the newspaper of record, I don't think it is anymore. Do you agree with that? And if it isn't, then what is its editorial mission?

JILL ABRAMSON: Right. You know, for "Merchants of Truth," I kind of struggled with that question. And where I settled out after doing a lot of comparative reporting is that the "Times" still serves an important function of setting the agenda for other news organizations.

But because it has such a variety of different kinds of content now and much more lifestyle coverage, much more, in a way, psychology coverage-- I mean, the Sunday Review section can sometimes feel like "Psychology Today" to me. And those stories are perfectly interesting, but there is no newspaper of record anymore.

But the "Times" more than anyone is an agenda setter.

ANDY SERWER: That's an interesting distinction between agenda setter and paper of record. And I think that makes a lot of sense. What about this notion that news organizations need to have a safe harbor or a sugar daddy to survive? Carlos Slim, Jeff Bezos, Marc Benioff, Laurene Powell Jobs-- on and on and on.

JILL ABRAMSON: We're watching the "LA Times" now.

ANDY SERWER: Verizon owns Yahoo. All these things. So is that going to be necessary going forward?

JILL ABRAMSON: Well, you know, it definitely-- if they are benevolent billionaires as so far Jeff Bezos has been-- you know, he has really fulfilled his promise, which was before he bought it-- he promised to provide the runway-- not a completely open wallet-- for them to make a big comeback. And they have.

But there just isn't one business model that is going to be right for every news organization. There isn't.

ANDY SERWER: I haven't gotten to this point in the book yet, Jill, but my understanding is you talk about being fired.

JILL ABRAMSON: Yeah, I do.

ANDY SERWER: OK. And it's sort of a cliche or a trope that, oh, I learned so much from my failure. But maybe it's true-- did you learn from that episode?

JILL ABRAMSON: You know, I think you learn from-- you learn what you're made of with every traumatic experience. I mean, I was run over by a truck just a block from where we're talking. And I learned things about myself like in struggling to recover from that. And, yeah, I learned things about myself after I was fired.

I talk about some of those things, I think, as candidly as possible that I wasn't a perfect manager. I also talk about the fact that I felt in the top job. I'd been managing editor-- which is the second-most important editing job at the "Times" for eight years-- and I didn't feel so personally judged in that. But once I made it clear I wanted to go for the top job and then got it, I felt like I was seen as pushy and too ambitious.

Things that are pretty cliche words applied to a woman who gets the top job-- and there have been many studies that your likability goes like this when you get that job. But it's the qualities that are seen as pushiness or seen as leadership in men. And that's something I knew nothing about like while I was doing the job and learned about.

But I also-- for the book-- did some reporting on my own tenure as executive editor. And some of my failings I had to come to grips with because I heard them from several sources. And that's in the story. I've devoted my life to telling the truth and that has to apply to what was a very painful episode.

ANDY SERWER: Yeah. Jumping around a little bit here-- I was talking to Peter Thiel not long ago. And he-- maybe somewhat ironically, seems to be the word of the morning-- said that there's a bull market in news right now, which I think speaks to something you were saying earlier about Donald Trump.

What happens to the business after he goes away?

JILL ABRAMSON: You know, that is the $100,000 question. I just don't know. I mean, this is a period where I feel people have gotten much more interested in news. And it is beyond President Trump. But he has been as, you know, ratings gold, especially for the cable networks. And he has sold lots of papers. And every time his name is in a headline-- I had lunch with a friend of mine from the "Times" recently.

And this person admitted to me that you know he writes weekly that when he doesn't write about Trump, his pieces don't get the traffic that they do when it's focused on Trump. So I'm hoping against hope that the idea that you need to be informed and know facts and what is true will survive beyond a president who is always telling untruths and challenging facts.

ANDY SERWER: You mentioned Facebook.

JILL ABRAMSON: What do you think?

ANDY SERWER: What do I think? I think it will dissipate. I think that there will be a pendulum and we'll have perhaps a colorless or less colorful president.

JILL ABRAMSON: Oh, I agree.

ANDY SERWER: Let me ask you about your take on how the media is coping and covering Donald Trump.

JILL ABRAMSON: You know, it's hard. Covering the president, covering the White House is the hardest job in journalism by far now. You have to be an expert in politics and policy, be responding to daily nonsense and his tweets.

I wish there was-- I say this in "Merchants of Truth," I wish the coverage was less reactive to that. But you also have to be an expert in criminal law to follow the twists and turns of the Mueller probe. So I'm loath to judge reporters too harshly.

I think that Jim Rutenberg wrote a wonderful column in the "Times" during the 2016 campaign where he said, Trump is challenging all the norms of journalism. And we partially enabled that by giving him so much free airtime covering those rallies live. But he has.

Said it's been hard to adjust to that. There's division over whether to call-- I am comfortable calling lies when they are lies lies, but there are many editors who don't want to use that word.

ANDY SERWER: I find it unthinkable talking about that on air. Like, say, the President of the United States is lying. It's not an easy thing to say, is it?

JILL ABRAMSON: No and people feel like if you don't know what his intent is in his head-- because he picks up so much unreliable information and then spouts it-- like maybe he didn't intend to lie. But there are certain lies that are lies.

And it is-- it's just tough. I think in the past two years the coverage has become more tougher. There has been fabulous investigative reporting done. It's just very hard to cover such a hostile president who seems to have no respect for the First Amendment or a free press.

ANDY SERWER: I want to go back to what you were talking about a little bit earlier, Jill, and that is being a woman in the top job at the paper. And you also figured out there was a gender pay gap.

JILL ABRAMSON: I did a study.

ANDY SERWER: And I'm wondering-- can you talk about that a little bit? And have things improve improved, do you think?

JILL ABRAMSON: I commissioned when I was executive editor a study of whether we had pay parity or what on gender our pay scale looked like. And I empowered one of the most senior editors to be in charge of it. And it took, I don't know, six months to complete.

And when she was done with it, she marched into my office with a big folder, put it on my desk, and looked at me and said-- you are exhibit A.

ANDY SERWER: Wow.

JILL ABRAMSON: Yeah, I'm not blaming her in any way, but she got me like riled up and crazy by what she showed me. And I don't want to go into the number details, because it would be ridiculous for me to argue that the money I was making in the scheme of things-- that I was lucky, indeed, to get that job and be paid far more than most Americans are paid.

But there was a gap and there was a gap across, really, editors-- our editors throughout the organization. And even before I was fired, we had equalized a lot of those salaries. And I was very proud because in the first year I was executive editor, the "Times" masthead was half female for the first time in its history.

And because this editor came in with all kinds of figures-- that now the "Times" challenges, I have to, in fairness, say that. But when you combine pension plans and other things like that, I was badly underpaid. And so I took that up with you know Mark Thompson and Arthur Sulzberger Jr. And I had a coach at that time who had been a corporate coach at CBS.

And she said to me, you should not be negotiating this yourself. In network news, you get an agent or something. And she gave me the name of a lawyer who began negotiating for me. And I think that seemed very un-Timesian and happened at about-- like in the prelude to me being fired.

But in terms of gender-- I don't mean to go on too long-- but I think it's such an important topic. I mean, one of the things I definitely learned-- mainly after I was gone-- is that women who have the top job-- it doesn't happen to you when you're a managing editor, the number two. But when you go out for the top job and you get it, you are judged and seen as pushy and too ambitious and difficult and the B-word.

And I certainly encountered that. And qualities that are seen as very unlikable in women are seen as leaderly in men. So I studied some of those reports and definitely that felt familiar. But I also feel being a woman in general has been a plus for my career. I started out in journalism very closely after all of these gender discrimination lawsuits were filed against the major news organizations, including the "Times," including "Newsweek."

And so when I was rising up, I felt-- I was at the "Wall Street Journal" for eight years and at the "Times" too. They were looking for women who had management experience to promote. And I think I benefited from that.

ANDY SERWER: I want to ask you-- I mean, you were instrumental in promoting women in the "Times" organization. And do you even think that the #MeToo stories would have happened had it not been for this whole crop of women reporters?

JILL ABRAMSON: It's hard to say. And I so want to say, no, because of the magnitude of the story. But Jodi Kantor, who was one of the reporters who broke the Harvey Weinstein horrors, was a great reporter-- was actually the editor of "Arts and Leisure" when I first worked with her at the "Times." I convinced her to join our political team and she turned out to be a dogged great political reporter.

And when the 2012 campaign was over I-- and she is a great female editor, Rebecca Corbett-- we got together and decided Jodi should focus on gender for a year. I think she actually did it a year after I was gone too. So that sort of set the table-- a great editor, a great reporter, eventually joined by me again.

So it was women who kind of had-- let's focus on this. And, of course, having written a book about Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill sexual harassment and sexual abuse was going to be part of that mix. And I'm proud to have played a small part in that.

But I think if anyone had brought the number of women who ended up talking about Harvey to Dean Baquet or Matt Purdy-- the two great news investigative editors-- they would have jumped at it.

ANDY SERWER: Jill Abramson, author of "Merchants of Truth," thank you so much for joining us.