The New Yorker's Ken Auletta was first to report that the abruptly-fired New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson had been paid less than her male predecessor in the job, Bill Keller. There was also a disparity in the pay Abramson and Keller received when both were in the No. 2 position at the paper. Citing a friend of Abramson's, Auletta wrote that "the pay gap with Keller was only closed after [Abramson] complained." The dispute reportedly left both Abramson and the paper's management "unhappy."
But it appears there was more than just unhappiness behind Abramson's firing. Late Wednesday, Auletta added a telling new element to the story:
"A third associate told me, '[Abramson] found out that a former deputy managing editor' — a man — 'made more money than she did' while she was managing editor. 'She had a lawyer make polite inquiries about the pay and pension disparities, which set them off.' "
So there were lawyers involved. And even if the inquiries were "polite," Abramson's decision to bring in a lawyer — which always carries with it the implied threat of legal action — took the conflict to a new, more acrimonious level.
Of course, in any other walk of life, the Times would support a woman's right to resort to legal action in pursuit of equal pay. The phrase "equal pay" has appeared in the paper more than 200 times in the last two years. It's a subject the Times, both in its news pages and its editorials, has been committed to addressing. And in retrospect, there are hints the paper knew it has a problem of its own when it comes to equal pay.
In an April 9 editorial -- "The Truth About the Pay Gap" -- the Times noted that "Republicans have chided" President Obama for the fact that, on average, women on the White House staff make 88 cents for every dollar earned by men. White House press secretary Jay Carney, the editorial wrote, "awkwardly noted that that is better than the national average and that men and women in the same positions earn the same salary." Rather than continue that strained defense, the Times suggested another approach for the White House. "Instead of becoming defensive and trying to explain away the discrepancy, Mr. Obama should simply say the White House has to do better and present the lag for what it is: more evidence that the problem persists even in workplaces committed to equal treatment."
Now it appears men and women in at one least one position at the Times do not earn the same pay for the same work. The paper's management has a number of choices. It can go to war with Abramson. It can stress that she was given a raise to a level equal to Keller's. Or it can admit that it has a problem — one that exists "even in workplaces committed to equal treatment."
Which course will the Times take?