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In the wake of the Lewinsky scandal, the powers that be at The New York Times have sent a not-so-subtle message to the Washington bureau: You are no longer competing with just The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times, but with every newspaper, broadcast outlet, and Web site in the world. So don't get beat on anything by anybody, or you're bad news!
To drive home the mandate, bureau chief Michael Oreskes has put a fearless leader in charge, 44-year-old Jill Abramson, who was promoted to Washington editor late last month. In bureau hierarchy, the job of editor is akin to COO, that is, Abramson will oversee day-to-day operations, manage four subeditors and about 30 reporters, decide who works on which stories, and whether they belong on page one or framing the lingerie ads.
"The trick of the job is to exercise power gently and intelligently," says one Times insider, who calls Abramson's ascent "one of the best things that's happened to this bureau for years." The Washington editor must understand not only the White House and Congress, but also the departments of Defense, Justice, State, Treasury, and so on. So it doesn't hurt that Abramson's mind is large and can contain multitudes or that she gets along well with Oreskes, to whom she will report.
But it's her temperament that inspires awe in the Washington press corps. "She's able to be smart without being arrogant," says one colleague. "She doesn't strut. She doesn't preen. Most reporters are insecure egomaniacs. She is neither insecure nor an egomaniac." She also sets a good example, colleagues say, as a "hardworking," "honest," and "crack" reporter. Many call her brave; one insists, "She's got balls like cast-iron cantaloupes."
To be sure, Abramson is one of those superwomen with a devoted husband, two children, and impeccable credentials. A New York native and 1976 Harvard graduate, it took her just 10 years out of college to become editor of Legal Times, then owned by Steve Brill. Two years later she met with Al Hunt, the Wall Street Journal's then Washington bureau chief.
"I didn't have much of an opening," says Hunt, adding that he only interviewed Abramson "as a favor to [thenmanaging editor] Norman Pearlstine." But when Hunt asked her what stories she thought the Journalshould be doing, "She laid out about 10 stories, each of which knocked my socks off."
At the Journal, Abramson honed her investigative skills, teaming up with Jane Mayer to write a 1994 book on the Clarence Thomas nomination. Along the way she broke stories on money in politics, became deputy bureau chief, and developed what Hunt calls "great instincts" for spotting stories and trends.
In 1997, when the Times named Oreskes Washington bureau chief, the Washington editor was Adam Clymer, a veteran Timesman not known for his people skills. One of Oreskes' first moves was to hire Abramson, leading to speculation she was being groomed to become editor and, eventually, chief.
Abramson's erstwhile job at the Times was enterprise editor, which meant coordinating the investigative team. Differences among her reporters became pointed in the course of last year: Jeff Gerth and Stephen Labaton were lining up confidential sources in Ken Starr's office, even as Abramson pursued links between Starr and the so-called right-wing conspiracy.
Last fall, the Starr camp was riding high, but by January, as impeachment began to look like a bust, Abramson and Don Van Natta Jr. cowrote the definitive chronicle of the anti-Clinton conspirators. Last month, Van Natta reported that Justice had launched an investigation of Starr.
Says one insider of Abramson's effect on the scandal coverage, "We didn't fuck up in a major way, and a lot of the success was due to her calm and intensity." Al Hunt says, "She understood early on that the grassy knoll theory wasn't quite as crazy as it looked to most of us at the time."
So what happens next? Gerth continues to report on the Chinese satellite scandal, and Labaton shifted to the regulatory beat in November. Clymer is said to be writing a book on Ted Kennedy. This spring, Abramson will no doubt have to fend off spin from detractors who say the D.C. bureau has gotten in the tank with the Clinton White House.
What do The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal have in common? The titans of the Fourth Estate have all joined an amicus brief filed in a case that threatens to hold the media liable for publishing information that was stolen or leaked by a third party.
The case arose when Republican Congressman John Boehner accused his Democratic colleague James McDermott of slipping the media a transcript of a conference call between Newt Gingrich and House leaders, a tape of which had been made illegally by a couple with a police scanner.
Boehner's lawsuit is now on appeal in the D.C. circuit court. The reason the newspapers are so worked up is that if McDermott can be prosecuted or fined for pushing hot goods, so can they.
"It's long been a doctrine that if the media gets truthful, newsworthy information without itself illegally obtaining it, we are protected," explains Times lawyer George Freeman, who warns that any reversal will have grave consequences. "If the plaintiff's view of this case is accepted, it would have made it difficult, if not impossible, for the Times to have published the Pentagon Papers."