Former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson spoke publicly this morning for the first time since her dismissal from the paper, giving the commencement speech for Wake Forest’s class of 2014. Understandably, there was plenty of interest in what she might have to say, and her speech didn’t shy away from the events of the past week.
Appropriately enough, Abramson spoke on the subject of resilience: “We human beings are a lot more resilient than we often realize. Resilient and persevering.” Her speech was short and largely lighthearted — she joked that she was delighted with “the level of media interest” in Wake Forest’s Class of 2014, and ended her speech by quipping, “What’s next for me? I don’t know… so I’m in exactly the same boat as many of you!”
Abramson spoke extensively about her tenure at the New York Times, describing leading the newsroom as “the honor of my life.” Understandably, she didn’t deal explicitly with the circumstances of her departure, beyond confirming that it wasn’t at all voluntary — she said baldly, “I was fired,” and beneath her jocular manner, the sense of disappointment was palpable. Still, she didn’t seem to hold any bitterness toward her former employers, relating how a student had asked her if she was going to get her tattoo of the paper’s “T” logo removed: “Not a chance!”
She spoke about several of her heroes in the press, notably Nan Robertson and Katharine Graham, describing how both had “faced discrimination in a much tougher male-dominated industry… and [both] went on to win Pulitzer Prizes.” She also cited the example of Anita Hill, notoriously described as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty” by a right-wing press determined to destroy her reputation; Hill endured, Abramson said, and “turned that potential humiliation into a great career at Brandeis and writing books that tell truth to power. She was one of the people who wrote me last week to say she was proud of me.”
Perhaps the most moving moment of her speech came when she discussed a phone conversation with her sister after her firing: “My sister called me and said ‘I know dad would be as proud of you today as the day you were appointed editor… ‘Show what you are made of,’ he would say.'” She suggested that students take a similar stance: “Some of you [know the feeling]… anyone who’s been dumped, not got the job you’ve wanted, or rejection letters from grad school. When that happens, show what you are made of.”