OTR Interviews

Former NY Times editor Abramson: The Obama White House has 'put a freeze' on journalists

Former executive editor of the New York Times says criminal leak investigation on reporter sources is one reason she believes President Obama's administration is most secretive she has ever dealt with

 

This is a rush transcript from "On the Record," July 16, 2014. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS HOST: Right now, here ON THE RECORD, fired "New York Times executive editor, Jill Abramson. For the very first time on TV, Abramson will tell us all about her controversial firing. You'll hear what she has to say about that in just a minute.

But first, Abramson not holding back. While working at "The New York Times" and after decades of covering presidential administrations, Abramson calling President Obama's White House the most is he secretive White House that she's covered. And she's not the only one.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BYRON YORK, THE WASHINGTON EXAMINER: This is not the most transparent administration in history.

More On This...

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I will make our government open and transparent.

One of the things I want to do is open things up. I want transparency. I want accountability.

BOB CUSACK, MANAGING EDITOR, 'THE HILL': This White House came in saying we'll do things differently, we'll change Washington. They didn't change Washington.

OBAMA: The more transparency we can bring to Washington, the less likely it is Washington will be run by lobbyists and special interests.

Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.

A.B. STODDARD, 'THE HILL': He's broken a promise.

OBAMA: This is the most transparent administration in history.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VAN SUSTEREN: And joining us, Jill Abramson.

Nice to see you, Jill.

JILL ABRAMSON, FORMER 'NEW YORK TIMES' EXECUTIVE EDITOR: It's great to be here, Greta.

VAN SUSTEREN: And I say "fired," because that's the term you want. I would have used "former" but I read that you like "fired."

ABRAMSON: That's what happened to me. And I have devoted my career to truth-telling, so why hide that. And there are an awful lot of people in this country who, like me, have been fired from there job so --

VAN SUSTEREN: "Fired" it is, then.

I want to talk about the whole issue of President Obama and transparency.

(CROSSTALK)

VAN SUSTEREN: How many presidential administrations have you covered?

ABRAMSON: I'm going to date myself. I have been covering politics back to the Carter administration which was when I was starting out in journalism, so a long time.

VAN SUSTEREN: You said have this administration is the most is the secretive. What is your support? Why do you say that?

ABRAMSON: I think it's easy to demonstrate that that's true, starting with -- I love the name of your show, "ON THE RECORD." I have never dealt with an administration where more officials -- some of whom are actually paid to be the spokesmen for various federal agencies --demand that everything be off the record. So that's secretive and not transparent.

But the most serious thing is the Obama administration has launched eight criminal leak investigations against sources and whistleblowers. And they have tried to sweep in journalists, including - it's almost the one- year anniversary exactly that your college, James Rosen, had his record secretly looked at by the government in a leak investigation.

(CROSSTALK)

ABRAMSON: These are like really have put a freeze and have interrupted the normal flow of journalists who want to cover Washington, and national security especially.

VAN SUSTEREN: Is it profoundly different thought than the other administrations?

ABRAMSON: It is profoundly different. Before these cases, these eight cases, and all of history, there have been fewer than half of those. And so it is different.

VAN SUSTEREN: We listen to Josh Ernest, the current White House press secretary. And just the other day, he said that this is the most transparent. The president also said that.

(CROSSTALK)

VAN SUSTEREN: He said he, quote, "absolutely sticks by President Obama's line about having the most transparent administration." Are they also delusional then?

ABRAMSON: No. You know, in certain ways they have declassified some documents. They have done something that weigh on the side of transparency. But I just think that these criminal cases, these criminal leak investigations outweigh all of the good that they have done and all of the efforts they have made to try to be transparent.

You said, in the lead in to the show, I'm not alone in pointing out how closed and difficult this administration is for reporters. Everyone from Bob Schaffer to Lynn Downy, who was top editor at "The Washington Post," have commented at how secretive this White House is.

VAN SUSTEREN: We've got now, just recently 38 journalist organizations --

(CROSSTALK)

ABRAMSON: Right, protests.

VAN SUSTEREN: -- protesting in a letter. You have the White House photographers, who have been objecting because they don't have access. Instead, the White House photographer, the official photographer is taking the pictures and handing it to them.

ABRAMSON: Part of this is this arc of politics, as you and I have covered it. Politicians all want to control their image and control the messaging down to the photographs. But the president's day is a public thing. And to only have the White House itself documenting what he does is not the way the country deserves to have the president covered.

VAN SUSTEREN: I suppose it becomes, quote, "dangerous." It's one thing to control the message, but it becomes dangerous when you have a situation where are it chills the media, it chills journalism. Does is have -- have you seen a manifestation of that, that this administration --

(CROSSTALK)

ABRAMSON: I mean, all I can tell you is, until I was fired, I spoke every day almost to our national security team in Washington. Almost all of the reporters said to me that there's never been a more difficult atmosphere in which to do the work that they do than now.

VAN SUSTEREN: James Risen is an author. He worked at "The New York Times" when you were an editor.

ABRAMSON: Yeah. He's won two Pulitzer Prizes. He's a fantastic reporter and a colleague that I loved working with. And the fact -- he's been subpoenaed in one of the leak cases. And he has said himself that faced with having to testify and name a source, who he promised to keep confidential and to protect, that he would go to jail rather than name the source. And to criminalize just the work of journalists, I think, is not living up to what the founders, Thomas Jefferson -- not to get heavy on you -- but the founders wanted a free press. They thought that you and I and our colleagues do, whether it's for FOX or "The New York Times," which couldn't be more different, that the work actually serves a purpose in holding the government accountable to the people. That's what we do.

VAN SUSTEREN: Where it stands now with James Risen is that there's a criminal trial of a former CIA agent and they want him to testify. And he's refused. It's gone through the whole court system.

ABRAMSON: It went to the Supreme Court.

VAN SUSTEREN: So now there's a choice, either testifies or goes to jail unless President Obama or Eric Holder intervenes in some way. Eric Holder said he that he doesn't want journalist to go to jail for doing his job.

ABRAMSON: Doing their job.

VAN SUSTEREN: And the president say that he thinks whistleblowers are courageous and heroic, but if he rules against -- they side on the side of "The New York Times" and not the CIA, the intelligence community will be furious. So where are we on this?

ABRAMSON: In a tough place. And we don't know whether Jim Risen is actually going to be called to testify, put on the witness list of that trial. The trial hasn't started yet. But he's in a perilous situation that I don't think reporters doing their jobs should be in.

VAN SUSTEREN: When you were executive editor -- and I know you have been, quote, "fired" -- you got calls from DNI Clapper. And he said -- and I may be misquoting you -- but that you have blood on your hands --

(CROSSTALK)

ABRAMSON: I would have blood on them.

VAN SUSTEREN: You would have blood on your hands. What was that in connection with?

ABRAMSON: That was in connection with a story that we were doing about an intercepted communication between two al Qaeda leaders that had triggered a lot of worry are and, in fact, the evacuation of several embassies abroad.

VAN SUSTEREN: How do you determine whether or not to publish in that circumstance? Frankly, I've got a little bit of a rub with Clapper because he testified, I believe, falsely to Senator Wyden's question at the Senate Intelligence Committee --

(CROSSTALK)

ABRAMSON: About whether eavesdropping and monitoring was as widespread as it is.

VAN SUSTEREN: Right. That was March of 2013. So now you get a call and he tells you this. How do you make your decision? How do you decide what to print?

ABRAMSON: Well, you know, even though I agree that the testimony is certainly troubling, I never felt, either with this administration or with the Bush administration before it, when a top official would call me and express concern that a story would jeopardize national security, I never felt that that was a dishonest request or a disingenuous request. And it always caused me to pause, hear the argument, you know, think it through. And then you have to balance the news worthiness of the story and the benefit to the public of having the information versus the potential harm. And those are definitely the toughest calls I can think of for an editor to make.

(CROSSTALK)

VAN SUSTEREN: Now I want to ask about your firing. You suddenly went from reporting the news to being the news.

ABRAMSON: Being the news.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What does it mean to you to become the executive editor of the "New York Times"?

ABRAMSON: It means the world to me.

BILL O'REILLY, HOST, O'REILLY FACTOR: The "New York Times" fired its top editor, Jill Abramson.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: First, the controversy around the firing of Jill Abramson. It is heating up this morning.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The firing of "New York Times'" first female executive editor, Jill Abramson set off a debate about women in power.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think you guys should be much more sad about Arthur Sulzberger. Why does he run "The New York Times?"

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There were tensions within the newsroom about the demeanor.

KIRSTEN POWERS, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: I don't know how she operates in the work place. But if she's tough, so what?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VAN SUSTEREN: What happened? You got fired.

ABRAMSON: I did. That's true.

VAN SUSTEREN: Did you see it coming?

ABRAMSON: No, but I would say that I had my bumps. You know, some difficult situations with some of the people who I work for, which is normal.

VAN SUSTEREN: Tough? It's tough? Tough to get fired?

ABRAMSON: Yeah. I mean, of course. It's like a hurtful situation. And my firing was so public, as you just pointed out. It's mighty strange from going one day from being an editor of stories to being the story. But, you know, I think actually it's healthy for journalists to know what it feels like on the opposite end of the probing and questioning.

And, you know, the bottom line of the situation is that when I was executive editor, I loved "The New York Times" and so believe that it's the best publication there is. And after I was fired, I believe exactly the same thing. I spend more time reading it now than I could when I worked there.

VAN SUSTEREN: Why did you get fired?

ABRAMSON: It was said, because of my management style. And a hard- charging editor and I'm sure people worked for me that didn't like that style. I think for a lot of people, they like that. They like the fact that I was kind of a stand-up editor and --

VAN SUSTEREN: Anything to do with -- if a guy had been the same way, do you think a guy would have gotten the boot?

ABRAMSON: I have no idea.

VAN SUSTEREN: What do you think?

ABRAMSON: Plenty of guys get fired. Plenty of editors and news executives that I think were distinguished have lost their jobs. In this media environment, a lot of people get fired or.

VAN SUSTEREN: Do you know --

(CROSSTALK)

ABRAMSON: And what I do think broadly is that definitely, you know, women in leadership roles are scrutinized constantly and sometimes differently than men. And qualities seen as showing leadership or being assertive in men are seen, you know, there are certain code words, strident, too tough, whatever. And you know, that's just the world we live in. You know that, Greta.

ABRAMSON: Well, I'll tell you what I thought was troubling to me when reading some of the stories. I mean, there were descriptions of you -- I don't know if they were fair or not -- but they weren't named. It was like "people say." And that's an expansion to the broader question of journalism. It used to be, I think, that if someone had something to say, you identified the person. But I don't know if this is the Internet age or whatever, but all these "people say" or "senior officials in the administration," whatever, we don't identify them.

ABRAMSON: Right.

(CROSSTALK)

ABRAMSON: I think -- I mean, one of the things that I think was an accomplishment I'm proud of at "The Times," and this began when Bill Keller was executive editor and I was his managing editor, we really tried to cut down on the number of anonymous sources. And Bill actually had a great word for the sources. He called them anonymites.

(LAUGHTER)

VAN SUSTEREN: But it's -- but it is, it's troubling, sort of --

ABRAMSON: Well, you don't know how to assign credibility to a source that's a just a senior official or someone in the newsroom or whatever. It's impossible to evaluate the credibility of the information when the source is anonymous.

VAN SUSTEREN: I assume you're aware --

(CROSSTALK)

ABRAMSON: But sometimes you can't get anyone to talk to you, especially my first point in our interview in the administration in Washington. It's hard to get people to tell you they will put their name behind what they say.

VAN SUSTEREN: I'm sure you've seen the criticism from a lot of my colleagues here that "The New York Times" is a left-liberal, left-leaning newspaper. Fair or are they dead wrong or what?

ABRAMSON: I think that isn't the right way to look at "The Times." "The Times" is a cosmopolitan newspaper published, hence "The New York Times." But there are many stories where I think that characterization is just dead wrong. And I spent a lot of time -- I was the Washington bureau chief. And that job is like right on the front lines of politics. And I know that "The Times" plays it straight. It just does. I know many of your viewers probably will send you many messages saying, well, that's just baloney. But I have known you a long time and I'm telling you it's true.

VAN SUSTEREN: OK. There is one other thing, the tattoo. You have a "New York Times" tattoo?

ABRAMSON: I have "The Times" "T."

(CROSSTALK)

VAN SUSTEREN: Where is it?

ABRAMSON: On my back.

VAN SUSTEREN: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

I won't ask you to show us.

ABRAMSON: I also have the Harvard "H." I will be teaching there in the fall. And that was where I went to college, so.

VAN SUSTEREN: And you have a boxing picture?

ABRAMSON: I do.

(CROSSTALK)

VAN SUSTEREN: What's the story on that picture? I mean, we've all seen -- there it is right now.

ABRAMSON: Yeah. Not my -- I didn't have the benefit of hair and makeup in that picture. But I -- that picture was taken by my trainer and --

VAN SUSTEREN: Ex-trainer or current trainer?

ABRAMSON: No, he's my current trainer. I only regret that the "New York Post" ended up putting that on the cover but didn't give him a photo credit.

VAN SUSTEREN: Maybe I can help out next time.

(LAUGHTER)

Anyway, all right, you're off to Harvard. I will call you "fired" and instead of "former." But the first woman, and you had a lot of Pulitzer Prizes, I should say, while you were at the helm.

Nice to see you. Good luck at Harvard.

ABRAMSON: It's great to see you. Thank you, Greta.

VAN SUSTEREN: I hope you come back.

ABRAMSON: Thank you.