Over the past month, two New York Times columnists have displayed brave and extraordinary journalistic integrity that deserves commendation. Both instances pertain to the still-growing scandal that BBC senior executives suppressed the media outlet's own investigation into the alleged serial pedophilia of Jimmy Savile, one of Britain's most beloved TV celebrities whose highly popular BBC show was aimed at teenagers.
What makes this story relevant to the New York Times is that the BBC's director general at the time the Savile story was killed, Mark Thompson, was selected last August as the new president and chief executive officer of the New York Times Co. The announcement was made by Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the chairman of the Times Company and the newspaper's publisher.
Since then, serious questions have arisen over what Thompson's role was, if any, in the killing of the Savile story, and whether he has given accurate and credible accounts of his knowledge of that episode. For obvious reasons, the New York Times has more of an interest than any other institution in determining what responsibility its incoming CEO and president bears for these sordid matters.
But, for equally obvious reasons, it is difficult to expect that Times reporters and editors will be dogged in investigating the role played by their new corporate boss. That is particularly true given that Thompson was selected and publicly heralded by the long-time controlling Sulzberger family as the savior of the struggling Times. Any journalistic investigation by the Times into Thompson's behavior would, in essence, be directly adverse to the corporate interests of the company that employs those journalists.
None of those concerns, however, remotely deterred the paper's new intrepid Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan. In a 23 October blog post, she unflinchingly laid out all the facts surrounding the scandal and the questions about Thompson's role, and then argued: "It's worth considering now whether he is the right person for the job, given this turn of events."
Noting that "one of the most difficult challenges for news organizations is reporting on what goes on inside their own corporate walls," Sullivan demanded that the Times aggressively investigate Thompson's conduct:
"All these questions ought to be asked. I hope The Times rises to the challenge and thoroughly reports what it finds. The Times might start by publishing an in-depth interview with Mr. Thompson exploring what exactly he knew, and when, about what happened at the BBC. What are the implications of these problems for him as incoming Times chief executive? What are the implications for the Times Company to have its new C.E.O. -- who needs to deal with many tough business challenges here -- arriving with so much unwanted baggage?
"As the BBC has found out in the most painful way, for The Times to pull its punches will not be a wise way to go."
As impressive as Sullivan's post was -- and it was indeed impressive and literally inspiring -- the nature of Sullivan's job with the Times is such that this type of independence is possible, even encouraged. The contract for the public editor position provides that the person will be employed for 18 months but no longer, so there is no chance of being re-hired, thus removing any incentive to curry favor with corporate bosses. And she "works outside of the reporting and editing structure of the newspaper" to ensure independence.
Still, Sullivan has a long career in journalism ahead of her, and it is the rare journalist who would be willing to ruffle feathers and directly challenge the corporate bosses at an institution as influential as the New York Times (indeed, the first three Times Public Editors rarely challenged editorial practices in any meaningful way). Yet, as Dan Gillmor recently documented in the Guardian, Sullivan has done so repeatedly already in her short tenure, and her post demanding a real investigation by the Times into Thompson's conduct was the most impressive example yet.
In contrast to Sullivan, Times columnist Joe Nocera works within the paper's traditional editorial hierarchy and has none of the contractual protections given to the public editor. Nonetheless, he devoted his column this week to questioning whether the incoming president and CEO, as the headline put it, "is the right man for the job?"
Nocera (whose series of expose's on the NCAA's tyranny deserves a Pulitzer Prize) began by highlighting the Times' corporate struggles and the difficulty of trying to recruit someone for this position given the stranglehold of control the Sulzberger family has long exerted on the paper. Despite the significance to the paper of Thompson's hiring, Nocera writes that "since early October, all anybody has asked about Thompson are those two most damning of questions: what did he know, and when did he know it?"
After reviewing the evidence that puts Thompson in a negative light, Nocera provides his own answer to those questions:
"A few months later, the news broke in the British press that the BBC had, as The Daily Mail put it in a headline, 'shelved Jimmy Savile sex abuse investigation 'to protect its own reputation.' 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, and it makes you wonder what kind of an organization the BBC was when Thompson was running it -- and what kind of leader he was. It also makes you wonder what kind of chief executive he'd be at The Times."
After noting that Sulzberger "is backing his man unreservedly," Nocera concludes his column with this warning: "let's hope his faith in Thompson is warranted. Otherwise, the BBC won't be the only organization being asked tough questions about its judgment."
The hallmark of good journalism, what is most missing from the profession, is a willingness to adversarially challenge those who wield power even at the risk of one's own reputation or career. Few acts evince that noble attribute as well as journalists who aim their adversarial scrutiny at their own corporate employers and publishers. Journalistic malfeasance is all too common, so it is worth taking a moment to behold, and applaud, what real journalistic courage and integrity looks like. Let us hope that the integrity displayed by Sullivan and Nocera prove to be contagious.