(Adds more remarks from speech, comment from crowd, and more background)
By Ken, Otterbourg and Jennifer Saba
WINSTON-SALEM/NEW YORK May 19 (Reuters) - The New York Times’ ousted top editor Jill Abramson made her first public remarks on Monday not shying away from the controversy surrounding her departure and told graduates to fight back.
“Some of you, and now I‘m talking to anybody who has been dumped ... You know the sting of losing and not getting something you badly want. When that happens, show them what you are made of,” she said.
Abramson delivered the commencement speech to students graduating from Wake Forest University in North Carolina after unusually scathing criticism of her management style leveled by Times’ publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.
The speech was closely watched by media observers eager to hear Abramson’s thoughts given the acrimony surrounding her departure.
Kelley Thompson of Maumelle, Arkansas, who was at Wake Forest to see her son graduate, said of Abramson, “I thought it was great. She approached it head-on. It was a difficult problem and she didn’t hide from it.”
Abramson brought up Anita Hill noting the attorney who accused U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment turned her insults into a badge of honor.
“Anita wrote me last week to say she was proud of me. That meant so much,” Abramson said.
Abramson co-wrote a book with New Yorker writer Jane Mayer about Thomas.
Abramson famously got a tattoo of the Times iconic “T” on her back. When asked if she was going to remove it, she said: “Not a chance.”
Sulzberger, whose family controls the New York Times Co , announced to a stunned newsroom on Wednesday that he had replaced Abramson with her second-in-command, Dean Baquet. Baquet is the paper’s first African-American editor and Abramson was the first woman.
“What’s next for me. I don’t know. So I‘m in exactly the same boat as you,” she told the audience.
Sulzberger’s abrupt dismissal of the woman he hired three years ago sparked a firestorm of debate over women managers. The controversy was fueled by a report in The New Yorker that said Abramson was paid less than her predecessor as executive editor, Bill Keller, and other male counterparts during her 17-year career at the paper.
Sulzberger has since twice spoken out to say that Abramson’s compensation was not “considerably” less than that of Keller’s - that it was directly comparable - and to deny she was removed because she is a woman.
In a statement on Saturday, Sulzberger targeted Abramson’s management skills, ticking off a list of reasons including “arbitrary decision-making, a failure to consult and bring in colleagues with her, inadequate communication and public mistreatment of colleagues.”
One incident according to press reports involved the courting of Guardian editor Janine Gibson to serve as Abramson’s deputy.
Abramson closed her speech with an anecdote about her mother’s knitting projects - the good ones and the itchy ones as well - and told the graduates to keep pushing forward.
“So today, you gorgeous brilliant people, get on with your knitting.” (Reporting by Ken Otterbourg in Winston-Salem and Jennifer Saba in New York; Editing by Christian Plumb, Frances Kerry and Sofina Mirza-Reid)