former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Archive for October, 2012|Monthly archive page

Tough New Public Editor Challenges Top Brass at The Times

In Blog on October 29, 2012 at 2:27 pm

Margaret Sullivan and I were both cub reporters in Buffalo.  And even then she was considered a strong, good reporter who couldn’t be bullied.  It’s clear that she hasn’t lost that toughness.

Sullivan, who rose to be editor and vice president of The Buffalo News, this year joined The New York Times as its public editor. Perhaps because she knows what it’s like to be in the executive suite, Sullivan seems to have had no qualms about giving her new bosses some advice about a prickly personnel issue.

As the newspaper’s public editor, Sullivan’s mission, according to The Times, is to “write about The Times’ journalism and the people who produce it,” and to serve as a “liaison to the paper’s readers.”  To ensure that the public editor is independent, unlike every other journalist on the planet, Sullivan has been promised a four-year tenure.  So at least in theory, she can poke a stick at the big bosses in public, and not get the sack.  But there are thousands of other ways that you can feel the wrath of upper management even when your tenure is secure.  It will be interesting if, at the end of two years on the job, she exercises her option to re-up for another two years.

Only four months into her new job, Sulllivan now is writing frank comments about a very messy controversy brewing at The Times, which concerns the man the Gray Lady had selected to be its new president and chief executive officer.

Mark Thompson, The Times’ CEO in waiting, is in the vortex of an emerging scandal in his home country.  He had been a high-ranking executive at the BBC when BBC investigative reporters were about ready to do a story alleging that a beloved BBC entertainer, Jimmy Savile, who died last fall, had been a sexual predator during the 1970s and 1980s.  (What better gig for a predator than a familiar TV face who visited lots of children’s hospitals?)  But the BBC killed the investigative piece, and, even worse, aired a couple of smarmy Christmas tributes to Savile.

Saville, according to news accounts, had been the target of police investigations in the past, but they all had been dropped.  The BBC journalists had their story squelched, but a competitor network subsequently broadcast its own story about the scandal. After the story broke, more than 200 victims came forward to allege abuse.

Thompson has told a British parliamentary committee looking into the Savile matter that he didn’t kill the story and that he hadn’t known about the Savile investigation.

Thompson’s initial denial that he hadn’t heard anything about the flap was then followed by a clarification that yes, he had been approached at a party by a BBC journalist who mentioned the program.  He told The Times that he then asked BBC news executives about the report, and was told it had been canceled for “journalistic” reasons.

The Times has been reporting on the story, often citing aggressive follow-ups by British journalists.  Just today, for example, The Times noted that the killing of the BBC’s story had been reported in the media several times, making Thompson’s lack of interest in the story and why it was spiked, a bit more difficult to swallow.

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