Former NYT editor Jill Abramson voices regret for citation errors, denies plagiarism during book talk at Harvard Book Store

Jill Abramson (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

By Martha Merrow
BU News Service

CAMBRIDGE – Former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson voiced her regret for citation errors in her new book “Merchants of Truth,” denying allegations of intentional plagiarism in a book talk she gave Tuesday night at the Harvard Book Store.

Abramson published “Merchants of Truth” on Feb. 5. A day later she was accused of plagiarism by Vice correspondent Michael C. Moynihan, in a Twitter thread he posted comparing several passages of her book that closely resembled material from publications including Vice, the New Yorker and the Columbia Journalism Review.

Abramson apologized on Twitter and in subsequent appearances in the media, citing “sloppiness” for the errors.

“It hurt and embarrassed me to have to make any changes,” Abramson said in her book talk. “But I absolutely needed to correct these things.”

“Merchants of Truth” follows legacy newspapers the New York Times, the Washington Post, and startup companies BuzzFeed and Vice Media as they develop and compete in the digital age, Abramson said.

Abramson spoke to a full audience from 7 to 8 p.m., opening the talk in the last 25 minutes for a Q&A. Although she did not initially address the allegations, the first question from the audience asked her to elaborate on the controversy.

Abramson responded by apologizing and advocating for transparency. She said she was expecting the book to receive criticism from journalists, but she was surprised by the pushback from Vice Media.  

“After the career I’ve had, at age 64, why would I suddenly decide to steal other people’s work?” Abramson said.

Abramson worked as a senior reporter in the Washington bureau of the Wall Street Journal for nine years before joining the New York Times in 1997; in 2011 she became the first female executive editor in the Times’ 160-year-history. Abramson now works as a political columnist for the Guardian and as a visiting lecturer of journalism at Harvard University.

Abramson called the digital transition she presided over at the Times a “Gutenberg moment,” referring to the invention of the Gutenberg printing press and its subsequent influence on newspaper journalism.

“…it seemed to be a whole revolution in how people read and distributed the news,” Abramson said.

Legacy newspapers struggled to adapt to technological changes and remain relevant to young readers, while startups like Vice and BuzzFeed evolved quickly through clickbait and digital advertising, eventually entering real journalism, Abramson said.

“[The Internet] improved journalism by democratizing information…but [journalism] is hurt by stoking polarization through social media,” Abramson said in an interview.

Jeff Mayersohn, owner of the Harvard Book Store, said that Abramson was invited to the store for her talk “because of her influence as a journalist,” he said.

Abramson said that although she is an optimist of journalism’s future, she will not deny the challenges it faces amongst social media and the spread of fake news.

“How do you play the role of watchdog – of critical centrality to the 1st amendment – in a world where 63% of adults get most of their news from Facebook?” Abramson said. “How do we fulfill the founders’ vision of the press?” 

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