In 1997, the Times snatched her away. Abramson flourished at the paper, and in 2000, thenexecutive editor Joe Lelyveld tapped her to be head of the Washington bureau. Abramson’s simpatico relationship with Lelyveld would not be replicated with Howell Raines. From the moment Raines took over, Abramson says, it was clear he wanted to install a different Washington bureau chief. The attacks of September 11 only accelerated the tension. Within weeks, Raines had begun dictating stories for the bureau to write over the daily squawk-box meetings held between Washington and New York, and by the end of October, things had deteriorated to the extent that one of Raines’s deputies was dispatched to D.C. in an attempt to smooth over the situation. The meeting did not go well, and Abramson made it pointedly clear that she felt Raines was “especially disrespectful to the women managers in the newsroom.”
“I had been in Washington a long time,” she told me. “I’d been a reporter and editor in Washington since 1985, and while I don’t want to sound conceited, I think I had a great reputation. And I went from that to the first woman ever to be Washington bureau chief for the Times to, when I would go to book parties and other events in Washington, people would ask me, ‘How are you?’ like I had cancer. I went from kick-ass Washington journalist to I had a dread disease.” Had Raines’s ouster not come when it did, it’s more than likely that Jill Abramson’s career, and the history of the Times, would have unfolded very differently.
When Keller was named executive editor in the summer of 2003, one of the first things he did was ask Abramson to prepare a report on Judith Miller’s WMD reporting. It had the potential to be a fraught assignment: While in Washington, Abramson had overseen James Risen, who had pitched stories that cast doubt on the Bush administration’s—and by extension Miller’s—theories about WMDs. While Keller won’t share the specifics of Abramson’s report, it was, he says, “a kind of classic Jill Abramson deep-dive-reporting exercise, and we spent a lot of time talking about it.” (Today, Keller says his ultimate decision on the matter—“to kick the whole problem down the road”—was “a big mistake.”) In a 2008 book review of Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack, Abramson publicly acknowledged her failings. “I was Washington bureau chief for the Times while this was happening,” she wrote, “and I failed to push hard enough for a … skeptical article [about the administration’s WMD claims] written by James Risen.”
When Keller named Abramson as his managing editor, she became the presumed front-runner to be his successor. By early 2009, when Keller first began to talk with his wife about a timetable for stepping down, he had all but assumed Abramson would be the person to replace him. Indeed, Keller told Abramson of his plans even before he told Sulzberger.
“I talked to her because she’s my [managing editor] and my closest confidant in the newsroom,” he says. “So it was mostly a matter of, ‘Look, I’m thinking of doing this; let’s talk about it’ … Maybe the way I would put it is, there are clearly other people who would be good executive editors of the Times. But it kind of came down to, Why on Earth would you not pick Jill? She’s clearly got the integrity and the credibility. She’s been deeply immersed in digital, which is at the heart of what we’re doing. And she’s tough … I certainly didn’t want to be in the position of telling [Arthur] there was only one choice, because that’s clearly not the case. But I told him what I thought, he listened, he asked questions, and we ended up in the same place. Which is nice, and also good for the paper, I think.”
Ironically, some of the same kinds of criticisms that dogged Raines have also attached themselves to Abramson: She plays favorites and steamrolls anyone who disagrees with her; her Beltway focus and lack of international experience make her ill-prepared for her post. But most reporters respect her battle-hardened mien as well as her investigative bona fides. She is universally recognized as a ferocious competitor, as tough a journalist as any in the newsroom, even if she happens to have written a book about her dog.