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The Gray Lady’s new CEO, in black and white

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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, begins 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.

An exposé about Savile’s alleged predations — which involved as many as 300 victims and may have involved abuse on BBC property, according to police — was in the works. “Newsnight” scrapped its reporting on Savile, officially because of inadequate substantiation. A rival network, ITV, broke the story last month, touching off national revulsion and a series of investigations, including one aimed at determining whether the BBC hushed up Savile’s behavior to protect its own reputation.

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 the 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. The question is, can a news organization fairly cover itself when its own corporate interests are part of the news it is covering?

In a series of e-mail exchanges, Times executive editor Jill Abramson says the paper has devoted “considerable” resources to reporting on Savile and Thompson, including assigning investigations editor Matthew Purdy and veteran London-based correspondent John F. Burns to the story. She said she has received no “pushback” or criticism about its coverage from the Times’ corporate suite, particularly Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the company’s chairman. Sulzberger, she said, “stays true, always, to the principle of [reporting] Without Fear or Favor.”

But owning a newspaper has its privileges. Abramson said she showed Sulzberger a lengthy piece by Purdy about Thompson before it was published last week. The story found no smoking gun but concluded that Thompson “repeatedly missed opportunities to pursue a fuller picture of the ‘Newsnight’ reporting, the fate of the program and, perhaps, of Mr. Savile.”

“Arthur and I have a close relationship and a policy of not surprising each other,” Abramson said. “So I informed him about Matt Purdy’s article before publication, as I do with any potentially sensitive article.”

Sulzberger declined through a Times spokesman to comment; he also has declined interview requests from his own newspaper. In the few public statements he has made on the matter, he has stood by Thompson, saying in an Oct. 25 message to employees that Thompson “abides by high ethical standards and is the ideal person to lead our company.”

Since the BBC story broke in October, the Times has published 22 pieces mentioning Thompson, according to a Nexis database search. Sullivan, the public editor, said in a brief e-mail: “I think the Times has reported thoroughly and well on this.”

One of the newspaper’s most prominent voices has yet to offer his take on Thompson: David Carr, the Times’ media columnist, who has written unsparingly about other news organizations. Although he contributed to a story about Thompson, Carr says he hasn’t been moved to write about Thompson and the Times.

“I guess it does seem weird that I haven’t,” Carr said on Friday. “I always want to have something interesting and smart to say. I just didn’t feel I had much to add beyond that I don’t see anything that would prevent him from doing his job.”

Abramson, meanwhile, promises that the paper will stay focused on Thompson in the coming weeks. “The story is newsworthy and worthy of deep reporting, which we are continuing to do,” she said.

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