A warm breeze was blowing when I took this photo of Jill Abramson at the end of the two days I spent with her and Dean Baquet on their first visit to Pakistan.
The sun was setting on Karachi, and Seaview Beach was curiously peppered with thousands of clams.
In June 2011, before Jill and Dean took over as the new executive editor and managing editor of the New York Times, they visited Pakistan and Afghanistan to get a feel for the countries that had come to dominate their front page.
I had done some fixing and reporting for Jane Perlez, the NYT’s Pakistan bureau chief, and she asked me to be their guide to Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city.
As we walked against the howling wind on the beach, I remember being struck by Jill and Dean’s thehrao. The closest translation of thehrao that I can come up with in English is “calmness that comes from being wise.” It’s such a beautiful word in Urdu, and completely contradicts the word “pushy,” which has been used repeatedly to describe Jill in reports.
I also recall being so hopeful for women and journalism. A woman was finally going to lead what is, arguably, the most powerful newsroom in the world. And not only did she have plans to innovate, she was truly excited about embracing the digital era.
Back then, I remember thinking: Have we really reached the point that a woman like Jill Abramson – so full of thehrao – can be a leader? Or is the New York Times just that freaking awesome?
More on that later.
June in Karachi is unbearably hot and sticky. Back in 2011, in Pakistan’s largest city of 20 million people, security wasn't as much of a concern as it is now, but it was still an issue. We travelled in a regular car to avoid drawing attention to ourselves.
For most of their trip I sat sandwiched between Jill and Dean, shuttling between meetings. Jane Perlez suggested this arrangement, so I could point out interesting places as we traveled, and also so I could brief them for our upcoming meeting.
Like anyone else sitting between two strangers, I tried to make myself smaller than I was so I wouldn't be knocking shoulders with them. But Karachi's bumpy roads made that the rule rather than the exception. They took turns making us all laugh about it, and soon, thanks to Dean’s warm, jovial nature and Jill’s sense of humour, they became just Jill and Dean.
I took them to meet Karachi’s leading politicians, security experts and journalists. When we went to the Mohatta Palace Museum and a modern art gallery in Saddar, close to where Daniel Pearl was kidnapped, they admired Pakistan’s talented young political artists. We ate at Karachi’s exclusive Sindh Club and a hip restaurant called Okra.
One of our appointments proved problematic: gangs backed by political parties were clashing, and I had to end up cancelling a visit to the headquarters of MQM, a popular and powerful party often accused of stoking violence in the city. As I tried to calm an MQM politician who was screaming at me on the phone for insulting them by cancelling, Jill showed genuine concern if I’d be OK. Not every journalist shows concern for developing world fixers, so I remember that moment well.
I also remember being hopeful that the New York Times coverage of Pakistan was going to become more nuanced and fair.
Even though I had reported for the Times, I had been increasingly disillusioned with the paper’s coverage of Pakistan. The mere fact that Jill and Dean thought it was important to visit Pakistan and gain some first-hand insight seemed like a positive step.
After their visit I wrote to a friend: “The new executive editor and managing editor were a breath of fresh air. Besides being amongst the nicest, most down-to-earth people I have ever met, they were also the most observant. For two days, like anthropologists, they just soaked Karachi in. There was a calmness and wisdom to the both of them that I have rarely seen in the journalism scene here and even in the U.S. Maybe it comes from both of them being investigative journalists. I have a feeling we are going to start seeing some positive changes in the paper in the coming months.”
And we did. Bill Keller, Jill’s predecessor, paid a visit to Pakistan and wrote a long piece called “The Pakistanis Have a Point.” Declan Walsh, a foreign correspondent who, in my opinion, really gets the country and had spent eight years reporting on Pakistan for the Guardian, was hired as the NYT’s new Pakistan bureau chief.
Unfortunately, Declan seemed to piss off Pakistan’s spies and was expelled from the country two years later. He has continued to be the paper’s Pakistan bureau chief in exile.
I haven’t been in touch with Jill or Dean since their 36-hour tour of Karachi. But that’s more because I was intimidated by their titles, not by them.
When they visited Karachi in 2011, Jill and Dean hadn't yet formally assumed their new positions yet, and were still figuring out their dynamic as a team. When I had cause to introduce them, however, I started with seniority, so Jill first. But almost everyone we met would shake Dean’s hand first. That’s just how things work in Pakistan. We have all these female leaders, but everyone assumes the man in the group must be the lead. Dean seemed uncomfortable with this state of affairs, and, after the second meeting, quickly directed people to Jill. But Jill brushed it off, saying Dean was better dressed—he looked like the boss. We all laughed.
I wasn’t present in the New York Times newsroom these last three years, so I don’t know how Jill and Dean evolved as leaders. I don’t know why Jill was dismissed so suddenly after clearly doing an amazing job the last three years.
Jill is being branded as “pushy”, and Dean, who is a really nice guy, is being presented as the man who pushed her out.
Apparently, there was some tension regarding Jill trying to hire Janine Gibson, the Guardian’s editor, to share Dean’s title of managing editor. The Times CEO offered more details about the particular incident.
But the two days I spent with Jill and Dean make me very uncomfortable with all the words that have been used to describe them this week.
Jill and Dean made me hopeful because people with thehrao—down-to-earth, humble and wise—could attain such coveted leadership positions.
Days before I met them, I’d wrapped up a journalism fellowship at Stanford, where, among other things, I took a leadership class at the business school. I never thought I’d take a class called “Paths to Power”, but there I was because I wanted to understand why so many leaders were assholes. Jill and Dean were living proof that good, decent people could rise to the top.
I want to live in a world where leaders aren't just charismatic, where they’re also fair, humble and wise. Like the woman I hung out with back in 2011. Jill embodied thehrao. Dean did as well, but he was also naturally charming and approachable. He told me to drop by the Times when I was next in New York. Jill warmed up to me too. When I was alone with her, she talked to me about her family. As we rifled through the racks at Khaddi, an ethnic clothing store, she spoke to me about the confidence gap.
Her daughter described her best on Twitter last year:
— Cornelia (@CorneliaLG) April 24, 2013
In his talk to the newsroom, NYT publisher Arthur Sulzberger said he believed “that new leadership will improve some aspects of the management of the newsroom.” He said it wasn’t about gender. But the reality is we live in a world where the same management traits that make men “tenacious”, “ambitious” and “forward-looking” make women “pushy” or “bossy”, so maybe he should’ve chosen his words more wisely.
I am still hopeful that the New York Times will try to make its coverage of Pakistan more nuanced. I am also hopeful that Dean will be equally determined and assertive as Jill to make the “digital-first” vision a reality.
I don’t know what’s next for Jill, but the optimist in me is hoping for something bigger, better and more exciting because kick-ass women with her ambition, vision and thehrao need to lead.
Sahar Habib Ghazi is a journalist and the Deputy Editor at Global Voices. You can find her on Twitter @SaharHGhazi or at airports when she's hopping between Pakistan and the US.