former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

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.

This entire incident raises a lot of questions that likely won’t be answered by the time Thompson takes the helm of The Times, if all goes as planned.  What exactly had Thompson been told about the Savile story?  Did he know that the BBC had interviewed victims? Was he aware of the plans of his entertainment division to do a couple of laudatory programs on the entertainer as his journalists were working on an explosive expose?  If he knew about the plans of both divisions, why did he permit the entertainment division to continue with its programs?  After all, it is possible that BBC reporters did not have all the facts nailed down to everyone’s satisfaction.  But if there was any evidence that Savile may have exploited children, wouldn’t that be grounds for canceling, or at least postponing, the salutes to his memory?

It also raises a lot of questions about how The Times vets its top executives, people to whom they intend to pay millions of dollars in salary.  Did The Times managers discreetly seek out former BBC reporters, or discuss the BBC’s profile in Britain with journalism professors there? Did they perchance google the BBC over the past years to see if, I don’t know, there were any controversies that might have popped up under his stewardship?

It may turn out that Thompson acted totally reasonably, and that, as a busy executive, he trusted the people he worked for and simply did not know what was going on. That also may mark him as one of the least curious men ever to take the helm of a major news outlet, but that’s not a character flaw.

But The Times is not saying that it will postpone bringing Thompson on until it has all the facts. Indeed, The Times has not wavered in its public support for Thompson, who remains set to join the paper on Nov. 12.

So that makes Margaret Sullivan’s commentary on October 23 a relatively rare and gutsy display of independence from a public editor.  She acknowledged that it was possible that Thompson’s position had insulated him from the drama brewing about the documentary and its subject. But she also wrote that Thompson’s “integrity and decision-making are bound to affect The Times and its journalism – profoundly.  It’s worth considering now whether he is the right person for the job, given this turn of events.”

Two days after Sullivan’s blog, according to the British publication, The Guardian, The Times chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. sent an email to his employees declaring that he was ‘satisfied” that Thompson had nothing to do with the cancellation of the program on Savile.  He also reassured Times reporters that he and other Times editors knew Thompson well enough to vouch for his possession of “high ethical standards.”

If this scandal gets any bigger, Thompson may still lose his job at The Times, particularly if the newspaper feels the wrath of shareholders, and the journalism community.

Sullivan’s online commentary had drawn just 59 comments when I checked on October 24.  Not exactly a firestorm.

But I wouldn’t be surprised that even if Thompson does not join The Times, Sullivan’s tenure will be a difficult one.  For all the lip service big media outlets pay to these “so-called” public editors, who are supposed to speak up for readers, respond to reader concerns, and look at the work of their newsroom colleagues with a critical eye, it’s a pretty thankless job, and likely a pretty lonely one, too.  The Times’ first public editor called his 18-month stint not only ‘good’ but “tense and terrible.”  Sullivan’s immediate predecessor stepped down after two years stating that he wanted to “enjoy life without quite so much friction.”

Whether The Times sticks its current schedule for hiring Thompson, even with these lingering questions, will tell us something about its values.  How comfortable Sullivan will feel as public editor in the coming months, and whether she will feel free to continue to write gutsy commentaries about The Times’ top brass will tell us even more.

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