Jill Abramson's Commencement Address Is Both Pointed and Poignant


On Monday, former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson delivered her commencement address to the Wake Forest University class of 2014, recommending the students practice being resilient, even when they face setbacks. “When that happens, show what you are made of,” she said.

While the speech was the first time Abramson has spoken publicly since her firing, she’s been vocal in other ways, through close friends who have spoken to the press (most notably Kevin Auletta at The New Yorker) and her daughter’s social media presence.

“My only reluctance in showing up today is that the small media circus following me would detract attention from you,” Abramson said of her attendance at the graduation. “What total knockouts you are!”

Abramson was introduced by her friend, journalist and Wake Forest alum Al Hunt, who described her as “an iron lady.”

“It is said she can be a tough, no-nonsense, even pushy, in her passionate commitment to truth,” Hunt said. “That’s what makes a great editor.”

Abramson started off her remarks with a quip about the many, many reporters attending the graduation to hear what she’d say:

I think the only real news here today is your graduation from this great University. First of all, congratulations! I’m impressed that your achievements have attracted so much media attention. As well they should!

Abramson shared a conversation she had with the mother of a child she had written about for a recent story, whose son had been hit by a car (like Abramson) and died. Of that mother, Abramson said, “She is taking an unimaginable loss and already trying to do something constructive.”

Abramson made a brief reference to Nan Robinson of the Times and former publisher of the Washington Post Katharine Graham, noting that both had experienced “much more unfair gender discrimination” than she has. She also said she had received a note from Anita Hill (Abramson co-authored a book about Hill) telling her she was proud of her.

“I’m talking to anyone who’s been dumped, not gotten the job you really wanted, or received those horrible rejection letters from grad school. You know the sting of losing,” she said. “When that happens, show what you are made of.”

“It was the honor of my life to lead the newsroom,” Abramson said, adding that there is “not a chance” she will get the New York Times “T” tattooed on her back removed.

“We human beings are a lot more resilient than we realize.”

Since Friday, further accounts have come out about Abramson’s firing, most notably publisher Arthur Sulzberger’s dismissal of the claims that Abramson was fired because of her gender and/or a disagreement about pay, as well as a column by David Carr about the affair in the Times. Along the lines of sexism, reports from NPR’s David Folkenflik indicate that there was a “generational split” between the feelings of the young women Abramson mentored and the women she worked alongside. Other details about Abramson’s mishandling of the potential hiring of Guardian editor Janine Gibson for a position alongside newly appointed executive editor and former managing editor Dean Baquet have also been flushed out.

Abramson ended her speech by referencing Robert Frost’s 1956 Colby College commencement address, during which Frost discussed knitting. Abramson spun it into a story about her mother, a great knitter who sometimes knit nice things and sometimes knit scratchy, ugly things. “Get on with your knitting,” she instructed the class of 2014.

“What’s next for me? I don’t know. So I’m in exactly the same boat as many of you. And like you, I’m a little scared but also excited.”

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