Jill Abramson: NYT Publisher Drafted Letter Apologizing to China for Damning Report

China flag, fist
Alexander F. Yuan/Associated Press

Fired New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson alleges the storied newspaper’s publisher drafted a letter apologizing to the Chinese government over a report it published detailing corruption inside the communist nation.

In her forthcoming book, Merchants of Truth, Abramson writes publisher Arthur Sulzberger drafted a letter “all but apologizing” to Chinese officials for a report on how several of the country’s top lawmakers used their immense power for financial gain. Abramson claims the letter was written with “with input from the Chinese embassy.”

The 2012 report, titled “Princelings’ in China Use Family Ties to Gain Riches”, eventually won a Pulitzer Prize.

According to Fast Company:

When she first read a draft of the letter that had been leaked to her, “my blood pressure rose,” she writes, and she confronted publisher Arthur Sulzberger, who she claims eventually agreed to reword it with input from her and then managing editor Dean Baquet. But for Abramson, the letter was “still objectionable,” since it included language about being sorry for the “perception” the story created, and the episode “strained” her relationship with Sulzberger. Two years later, she was fired.

According to Abramson, Sulzberger was eager to appease the Chinese government because its operation in China was at stake. The paper had just launched a Chinese-language news site that included original reporting by a staff of 30 Chinese journalists, as well as translations of Times stories. But when reporter David Barboza, who was working on a deeply reported story about how family members of China’s ruling elite had accumulated vast wealth, contacted government officials for comment, they were enraged. The Chinese ambassador requested to meet with Sulzberger to “stop its publication.” Though he offered no evidence to rebut the claims in the story, the ambassador threatened “serious consequences” if the story ran, Abramson writes.

The Harvard-educated journalist alleges Sulzberger ultimately gave his approval for the report to be published and later told Margaret Sullivan, the Times‘ public editor, that he was “very proud” of the job its authors David Barboza and Sharon LaFraniere had done. “Our business is to publish great journalism. Does this have a business impact? Of course,” Sulzberger is said to have told Sullivan.

Furious Beijing officials banned the report in China roughly an hour after it had hit the web and later blocked the Times‘ website from inside the country. Further, China detained several Times employees and refused to issue new visas for the paper. The newspaper’s website is still inaccessible from inside the country infamous for its tight grip on everything from private enterprise to mass communications.

A panicked Sulzberger flew to China to convince its government to unblock the paper’s site, but officials were unmoved by the publisher’s in-person plea.

Then Abramson claims that, “without her knowledge,” the publisher drafted a letter with input from the Chinese embassy “all but apologizing” for the original story. She brought the draft to a tense meeting with Sulzberger at a nearby Starbucks. When she showed him the letter, he “seemed startled that I had it and he kept saying, ‘I didn’t do anything wrong.’ He tried to slip the letter into his folder, but I snatched it back,” she writes.

In a statement to Fast Company, the Times disputed Abramson’s account, calling it inaccurate, and said it published the report knowing it would face retribution from Chinese officials. “No, the account isn’t accurate and the publication of this 2012 story is a powerful example of the Times‘s deep commitment to publishing stories in the public interest without regard to potential financial impact,” the statement reads. “We published this story knowing in advance that our Chinese-language website, which had launched just months before, would be shut down–it remains shut down today. We’ve vigorously protested the shutdown and continue to fund the website to send a clear signal that our journalists cannot be silenced in retaliation for their coverage.”

Merchants of Truth is slated for release on February 5 via publisher Simon & Schuster

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