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Jill Abramson delivered an honest speech to Wake Forest’s 2014 graduating class Monday.
In her first public appearance since she was, as she put it, “fired” by the New York Times last Wednesday, Abramson preached resilience to those now also uncertain of what they would be doing next.
But before she began her remarks, she alluded to the media attention surrounding her speech, joking that it must all be for the graduates.
“I think the only real news here today is your graduation from this great university,” Abramson said. “First of all, congratulations! I’m impressed that your achievements have attracted so much media attention — as well they should!”
Later she said her only reluctance about appearing at the ceremony was concern that the “small media circus following” her would detract attention from the class of 2014.
“What total knockouts you are!” she said, perhaps alluding to the widely circulated Instagram photo of her working out with a punching bag last week.
Shortly into her speech, Abramson noted that she’d been fired by the Times the week before and used her personal experience to segue into her message for the graduates.
Her sister had called her last Thursday and told her that their dad would be as proud of her that day as he was the day she became the Times‘ executive editor.
“It meant more to our father to see us deal with a setback and try to bounce back than to watch how we dealt with our successes,” Abramson said.
“Show what you are made of,” she said her father used to say.
“Graduating from Wake Forest means you’ve experienced success already,” Abramson continued. “And some of you — and now I’m talking to anyone who’s been dumped, not gotten the job you wanted or received those horrible rejection letters from grad school — you know the sting of losing or not getting the thing you badly want. When that happens, show what you are made of.”
She said it was the “honor of my life” to lead the Times newsroom and, in response to those who wondered if she would get her New York Times tattoo removed, she defiantly said, “Not a chance.”
“We human beings are more resilient than we often realize,” she said later. “Resilient and perseverant.”
Abramson also revealed that Anita Hill was one of those who reached out to her in the wake of her firing, to say they were proud of her, with Abramson adding that “those messages are so appreciated.”
Abramson referred to two of her heroes — Nan Robertson and Katharine Graham — whom she noted faced even more discrimination in a male-dominated newspaper industry and who went on to win Pulitzer Prizes.
“Sure, losing a job you love hurts,” Abramson said. “But the work I revere — journalism that holds powerful institutions and people accountable is what makes our democracy resilient. This is the work I will remain very much a part of.”
“What’s next for me? I don’t know. So I’m in exactly the same boat as many of you,” she added to laughter and applause, joking that she’s booked a private session with Wake Forest’s career counselor after her speech.
“Like you I’m scared but also excited,” she said.
She closed by referring to Robert Frost‘s commencement speech to Colby College, in which he referred to life after graduating as pieces of knitting to get on with, in that life is always unfinished business.
“Get on with your knitting,” Abramson told the graduates, earning a standing ovation when she was done.
Abramson was introduced by friend and Bloomberg View columnist Al Hunt, who praised her work editing The Times and said that she left the publication “stronger, more vibrant than ever.”
Hunt also alluded to rumors about Abramson’s aggressive management style costing her the Times‘ top job.
“It’s said that she can be tough, no nonsense, even pushy, in her passionate commitment to truth and accountability, no matter rank or party. That’s what makes a great editor,” Hunt said.
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