That’s certainly the case with Jill Abramson’s suggestion on Thursday that her elevation to the position of executive editor at The New York Times amounted to a transfiguration and apotheosis, as well as the sacred fulfillment of the family faith that guided her childhood. Not only did she compare her new appointment to “ascending to Valhalla,” but in the original versions of a Times report by Jeremy W. Peters, she flatly declared: “In my house growing up, The Times substituted for religion.”
By the end of the day, someone toned down this touching testament of faith, suggesting merely that the new position represented “the honor of my life” for “someone who read the Times as a young girl growing up in New York ‘We are held together by our passion for our work, our friendship and our deep belief in the mission and indispensability of The Times,’ she said. ‘I look forward to working with all of you to seize our future. In this thrilling and challenging transition, we will cross to safety together.’”
And what will they cross, exactly? The Red Sea?
Will Jill Abramson wield a miraculous staff to part the surging waters more effectively than did her predecessors Bill Keller and Howell Raines?
Even though specific references to a “substitute religion” ultimately disappeared from the Times website, much of the faith-based rhetoric remained. Whenever people use words like “mission” and “indispensability” to describe their work it indicates they view their positions as sacred vocations, not mere jobs.
So why, in that context, would Abramson and her associates feel the need to remove the explicit revelation that she grew up in a home in which the Times had replaced the Bible? One can assume that they attempted to edit those words because they provided inadvertent support to three of the most persistent criticisms of America’s Journal of Record.
First, there’s the obvious conclusion that when the Times “substituted for religion” in the Abramson household the newspaper didn’t just supplement the faith of the family, it supplanted it. This passing observation may have been intended with a self-deprecatory wink, but it identified Jill Abramson as proudly secular and separated her from the overwhelming majority of her fellow citizens who, in the words of one currently prominent social critic, “get bitter” and “cling to guns or religion.” Abramson in fact received her (pre-Harvard) high school diploma at the prestigious Fieldston School in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, a project of the Ethical Culture Society which attempted to substitute rational conceptions of morality and justice for outmoded religious teaching. The New York Review of Books sympathetically described the organization and its school (founded in 1878) “as havens for secular Jews who rejected the mysticism and rituals of Judaism.”
There’s nothing surprising in the appointment of a New York Times executive editor with little connection to organized faith, but with the newspaper receiving pointed criticism in recent years for its tone-deaf reporting on religious issues, the notion of a new boss lady treating the liberal pieties of the press as the equivalent of holy writ threatened to provoke needless new controversy.
Second, the creedal references suffusing Abramson’s exultations suggested a sense of purpose—of “her deep belief in the mission”—that fits uncomfortably with the preening pose of scrupulous objectivity that the Gray Lady strikes for a wondering world. Communities of impassioned religious believers may boast many virtues, but neutrality and detachment are not among them. Abramson’s suggestion of journalists “held together” by some shared faith echoes the charges of a shared ideology—confirming the core conservative critique of the organizations so lovingly described by Sarah Palin as the “lamestream media.”
Third, Abramson’s reference to “ascending to Valhalla” in accepting her new appointment (a reference that survived even in final versions of the article) represents a monumentally odd analogy in this context. In Norse mythology, Valhalla represents the majestic palace where dead heroes consort with Valkyries and the Gods. In the Ring Cycle of Richard Wagner (a notoriously anti-Semitic composer who would display little affection for Fieldston School graduates named Abramson) The Entry of the Gods Into Valhalla provides one of his most stirring, soaring orchestral interludes. The claim that Jill Abramson now counts herself as part the godly company, with power and significance removing her from the normal coils of mortality, only underlines the image of journalistic arrogance that already troubles many Americans, with visions of an anointed elite haughtily lording it over lesser life forms. But there’s another echo in the Valhalla story that the immortals at the Times may come to rue. The Nordic myths describe the Home of the Gods as simultaneously glorious—and doomed. The destruction of this divine refuge counts as inevitable, for all the heroism and supernatural abilities of its inhabitants. With the deities of The New York Times continuing to struggle with falling circulation, challenging finances and a perception of growing irrelevance, this invocation of a magnificent center of power that’s fated for total destruction can’t count as reassuring.
After all, the Entry of the Gods Into Valhalla may occur early in Wagner’s Ring but the concluding installment bears the chilling title Gotterdammerung—or Twilight of the Gods. The Gray Lady may be a Goddess of the American press, but her new executive editor chose a creepy analogy to mark her appointment.