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What The Times Tattoo Says about the State of American Media

In the days following Jill Abramson’s dismissal from The New York Times, there was no shortage of newspaper columns and blog posts “analyzing” what had happened and what role gender played in the debacle. Some of these were astute. Most weren’t. And too many, as was utterly, depressingly predictable, trained their focus on Abramson’s physicality. While we heard that Abramson’s successor, Dean Baquet, “smokes fine cigars to relax, wears elegant loafers and excuses his decision to keep his suit coat on during our conversation by saying that’s just who he is”–in short, plays the part of the executive newspaperman–Abramson was depicted on the front page of The New York Post in a grainy Instagram photo showing her in a ball cap, tank top (check the imagery on that tank, by the way), and boxing gloves, a subway token tattoo on her upper arm.

Le sigh.

There’s plenty to say about that, but as my grandma would say, “Let’s don’t and say we did.” Instead, let’s turn our attention to another Abramson tattoo: the Times “T,” which, apparently was inked on her back. I first read about that tattoo in this article, and it immediately struck me as bizarre. Debates about the longevity of print newspapers aside, why would someone ever get a tattoo representing the place she worked on her back, especially when that place is a media outlet?

I asked a group of writer friends that question, and one said, “I guess if you really believe it’s more than a corporation, and has some higher purpose / role / symbolism in the world?”

Maybe… though I had a hard time understanding how anyone in this business feels such a faith and allegiance to an outlet that they’d emblazon it on their body. Hell, I love my kids and my husband and books and about 500 things ardently, and I’d never consider physically inscribing them on myself.

But that’s just me.
The funny thing is, though, many of us have (or have had) such a puppy dog faith in the outlets for which we work that we’ve done the equivalent of getting a “T” tattoo. As this week’s proliferation of exposé articles about the strange economics of media outlets reveals (especially this one and this one), those of us who are actually gathering and writing “content” are all too willing to accept a pittance we can hardly live on–we even parrot the stock phrase we’ve been sold: “These are hard times, the media landscape is changing, the whole revenue model has been upended.”–while publishers and other top-level executives seem to manage the cash flow well enough to earn a more than comfortable living and a whole host of lifestyle perks that are, apparently, commensurate with their VIP positions.

To say we’ve got no one to blame but ourselves is oversimplifying the matter, for sure. But… when we hang on to a staff position or gig because we believe, mostly unquestioningly, that our own sacrifice serves some greater good–and trust me, I’ve been there, hanging on for years– we’re deluding ourselves. No one at the top is thinking that, and don’t believe it if they try to tell you otherwise. There’s something fundamentally foul about the fact that freelance stringers covering Syria are making $70 a day (and no, expenses are not included) while Sulzberger’s net worth is reported to be $200 million. I’m not saying that the Times or any other outlet should institute the old Ben & Jerry’s executive salary cap model (though it definitely wouldn’t be a bad idea), but greater equitability would be a good start. When loyal minions stop paying homage to their publications and treat these institutions for what they are, we will have collectively triumphed over the starry-eyed adulation about outlets and will be unwilling to keep occupying the one man–or one woman–down position we’ve volunteered to hold down. When we accept that a party, or a trip, or a ring (insert major sad face) are not adequate substitutes for a living wage, then the economics of the media machine will really change. Maybe Abramson was silly to get a tattoo of the Times “T” on her back, but at least she had the audacity to ask for and insist upon what she was worth.

No word, by the way, on whether Baquet has any tattoos.


One response »

  1. I hate when writing is referred to as “content.” It feels like someone just wants to fill up a page with words. And it turns “content creation” into linkbait instead of a craft. Thankfully, there’s a great resource for that: Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet…


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