Tattoos and the NYT’s ‘Game of Thrones’

May 18, 2014

Game of Thrones

“Some people are fortunate enough to be born into the right family. Others have to find their own way.”

I can’t help but be fascinated by Jill Abramson’s tattoo. The ‘T’ of the New York Times inked into her skin. It’s like Carson, the butler in Downton Abbey, revealing that he has the Earl of Grantham’s armorial bearings embroidered on his boxers.

England still has its Downton Abbeys. These days people pay to look round at weekends. Cabinets do not retire to them at weekends for shooting parties. There are no staff, no family to serve. All to the good. But will New York still have its Times?

For the Carsons (and perhaps the Abramsons), the idea of these wonderful political edifices no longer being central to a way of life, no longer having culture (below stairs, above stairs; business and editorial) is anathema. Whilst the rest of us migrate to Quartz or BuzzFeed or Vice, the staff at the New York Times still care about journalism’s equivalent of the right way to lay out the silver and the correct glass for port.

Abramson’s tattoo tells you so much too about the way journalists – and people – construct their identity. The way we endow organisations with values, subordinate ourselves to their cultures. For all the talk of individual journalists as brands, here is a journalist branding herself and remaining resolutely interested in the task she is paid to do (finding things out, holding the powerful to account, sounding off to readers), whilst steadfastly resisting the idea that she simply works for a grand but fading family business.

Forced into the bloody business of making journalism pay, Abramson reacted like a neglected circus lion eyeing a new tamer. The spectacle contrasts pity at the humbling of a great beast with fear for anyone forced to make money by sticking their heads in such a hungry mouth.

But Ms Abramson’s editorship has certainly roared. A China edition launch. This. A new Chief Executive. This. To raise the bar from popular to classical drama, she has delivered the full Antigone – a superfluity of right – and if it is Claudius rather than Creon that she faces, well – never underestimate a Claudius.

Abramson, who I met under the blandest of circumstances a couple of times, appears to have been a connoisseur of good journalism. Whatever her merits, she certainly wasn’t political enough to survive.

Journalists are fond of believing that knowledge is power. Game of Thrones viewers might recall Cersei Lannister’s scene with Littlefinger. In a gender reversal for the New York Timesmise-en-scène‘, she is from the ruling family, and he is the self-made man. When he over-reaches to remind her of the frailty of prominent families, she has her guards seize him. A dagger is pressed to his jugular. It’s not knowledge that is power, she reminds him, “Power is power.”

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