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Former NYT editor claims publisher drafted letter “all but apologizing” to China for tough story

Former NYT editor claims publisher drafted letter “all but apologizing” to China for tough story
Jill Abramson [Photo: Marla Aufmuth/Getty Images for LeadOn:Watermark’s Silicon Valley Conference for Women]

In her new book Merchants of Truth, former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson claims that the news outlet’s publisher drafted a letter “all but apologizing” to the Chinese government for a tough investigative story about corruption in the country. The story went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. She claims that the publisher’s letter was drafted “with input from the Chinese embassy.”

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When she first read a draft of the letter that had been leaked to her, “my blood pressure rose,” she writes, and she confronted publisher Arthur Sulzberger, who she claims eventually agreed to reword it with input from her and then managing editor Dean Baquet. But for Abramson, the letter was “still objectionable,” since it included language about being sorry for the “perception” the story created, and the episode “strained” her relationship with Sulzberger. Two years later, she was fired.

Merchants of Truth by Jill Abramson

According to Abramson, Sulzberger was eager to appease the Chinese government because its operation in China was at stake. The paper had just launched a Chinese-language news site that included original reporting by a staff of 30 Chinese journalists, as well as translations of Times stories. But when reporter David Barboza, who was working on a deeply reported story about how family members of China’s ruling elite had accumulated vast wealth, contacted government officials for comment, they were enraged. The Chinese ambassador requested to meet with Sulzberger to “stop its publication.” Though he offered no evidence to rebut the claims in the story, the ambassador threatened “serious consequences” if the story ran, Abramson writes.

Sulzberger bucked the pressure and decided to let the story run. The publisher later told the paper’s then public editor, Margaret Sullivan, “I’m very proud of this work.” He added: “Our business is to publish great journalism. Does this have a business impact? Of course.”

Within an hour of publication, the story was pulled offline in China. In addition, the website was blocked, no new visas were issued to Times reporters, and some of their Chinese staffers were detained. To this day, the New York Times remains blocked in China.

Sulzberger eventually traveled to China to urge government officials to reopen the site, but to no avail. And Abramson claims that Times vice chairman Michael Golden “wanted to close the Chinese site altogether.” When she objected, arguing that it would look like “we were bowing to the censors,” she was ordered to cut in half the losses incurred by keeping the Chinese journalists employed while the sites were blocked, she writes. But on a trip to China to meet the staff, she claims she changed tack and decided to find the savings elsewhere.

Then Abramson claims that, “without her knowledge,” the publisher drafted a letter with input from the Chinese embassy “all but apologizing” for the original story. She brought the draft to a tense meeting with Sulzberger at a nearby Starbucks. When she showed him the letter, he “seemed startled that I had it and he kept saying, ‘I didn’t do anything wrong.’ He tried to slip the letter into his folder, but I snatched it back,” she writes.

Merchants of Truth, which goes on sale next month from Simon & Schuster, made waves earlier this week over a line in which Abramson called the New York Times “unmistakably anti-Trump.”

A spokesperson for the Times disputed the accuracy of Abramson’s account without going into detail, writing in an email to Fast Company:

No, the account isn’t accurate and the publication of this 2012 story is a powerful example of the Times‘s deep commitment to publishing stories in the public interest without regard to potential financial impact. We published this story knowing in advance that our Chinese-language website, which had launched just months before, would be shut down–it remains shut down today. We’ve vigorously protested the shutdown and continue to fund the website to send a clear signal that our journalists cannot be silenced in retaliation for their coverage.

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