N.Y. Times CEO comes from BBC

  • Article by: PAUL FARHI , Washington Post
  • Updated: November 12, 2012 - 8:27 PM

In its long and glorious history, the New York Times has challenged presidents, generals and dictators. At the moment, its journalists are taking on an unlikely figure: the newspaper's new chief executive.

In articles, blog posts and commentaries published over the past few weeks, the Times has questioned whether its incoming CEO is fit for the job, although neither the editorial board nor the paper's media critic has weighed in.

The executive in question, Mark Thompson, began work Monday as president and chief executive officer of the New York Times Co., publisher of the namesake newspaper as well as the Boston Globe and other media properties. Prior to his hiring in August, Thompson, 55, was the director general of the BBC.

It is Thompson's involvement, or perhaps non-involvement, in an unfolding scandal at the BBC that has invited the Times' interest. During Thompson's tenure last year, journalists at the BBC's "Newsnight" program began looking into long-standing allegations that a late, legendary BBC personality, Sir Jimmy Savile, was a serial pedophile.

The Times has taken several runs at the story, and at Thompson. "His integrity and decision-making are bound to affect the Times and its journalism -- profoundly," wrote Times public editor Margaret Sullivan on Oct. 23. "It's worth considering now whether he is the right person for the job, given this turn of events."

Times financial columnist Joe Nocera made the point even more bluntly a few days later: "Given the seriousness of sexual abuse allegations -- look at what it did to Penn State -- you would think that Thompson and his underlings would immediately want to get to the bottom of it. But, again, they did nothing. Thompson winds up appearing willfully ignorant ... It also makes you wonder what kind of chief executive he'd be at the Times."

Thompson has repeatedly denied prior knowledge of the Savile allegations or of the decision to cancel the "Newsnight" piece. But his statements have evolved; after his first broad denials, he acknowledged learning about the "Newsnight" inquiry soon after it was dropped from a BBC reporter. He declined an interview request through a Times spokesman.

The Thompson story is an unusual test of the invisible firewall that separates the business interests of a news organization from the decisions of its newsroom.

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