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Mark Thompson Takes Over At New York Times Co.


This week, Mark Thompson takes over as chief executive at the New York Times Company. The Times Company is struggling financially - and the hope is that Thompson will bring some of the organizational success he had in meeting the BBC.

But recent scandals at Britain's public broadcaster are raising concerns, as NPR's David Folkenflik reports.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: The Oxford English dictionary recently announced a British word of the year - Omnishambles - basically, an epic all-out screw-up involving a string of blunders. It seems an apt term for what's been playing out at that most quintessentially British of institutions - the BBC.

Late last year - Mark Thompson was director general at the BBC - a blend of CEO and editor-in-chief - when a popular retired BBC DJ and children's program host named Jimmy Savile died. BBC News subsequently prepared an expose reporting that Savile raped children who appeared on his show. The investigation never made air, but a show celebrating Savile did, and Thompson is facing questions about his role in that sequence.

Reporters confronted him, anew, Monday morning, as he entered the New York Times building.

MARK THOMPSON: It will not in any way affect my job, which I'm starting right now as chief executive of the New York Times Company. Thank you.

FOLKENFLIK: There is no evidence Thompson had any knowledge of the allegations against Savile or involvement in killing the expose. But media analyst Ken Doctor of Outsell says, it doesn't look good for Thompson or the Times Company.

KEN DOCTOR: Now Mark Thompson walks in the door - very good credentials - by most accounts, a very good guy - and what happens on the day he enters is on page one of the newspaper, the story about his former organization, the BBC, and how it's in chaos, how it's in meltdown.

FOLKENFLIK: The man who followed Thompson as director general just resigned. The top news executive has been asked to step aside. That's because a BBC News investigation this month wrongly accused a retired politician of abusing a youth. The BBC hadn't even asked the politician for comment.

The case for hiring Thompson had appeared fairly convincing to The Times.

RICHARD SAMBROOK: He left the BBC in a very, very strong position.

FOLKENFLIK: Richard Sambrook is a former global chief of news for the BBC. He says Thompson took over during an earlier - more intense crisis involving clashes with Prime Minister Tony Blair's government, and that he launched key digital initiatives to reach new viewers.

SAMBROOK: He stabilized the organization, he reorganized it, and he took it through quite a difficult period where it was under sustained political and commercial attack.

FOLKENFLIK: Richard Sambrook says the BBC's recent untrue report is much more damaging than what took place last year, under Thompson.

SAMBROOK: Now, hindsight is a wonderful thing, but if you go back to Jimmy Savile, when he died in November last year, he was still somebody who would dine with prime ministers, mix with the royal family, had been honored and was celebrated for having contributed a great deal to charity. We see him very differently today, but back in November last year, that's how he was seen when he died.

FOLKENFLIK: Thompson has said he didn't know about the Savile expose until a stray remark at a cocktail party. He said he asked about the story but was told it wasn't nailed down. But executives and editors at The New York Times told me there's widespread concern that something more damaging could emerge and are bewildered that Thompson's arrival wasn't delayed by New York Times Chairman and publisher Arthur Sulzberger.

That skepticism surfaced in a recent piece by Times columnist Joe Nocera - who contended that Thompson comes off as willfully ignorant of what was going on at the BBC under him.

Analyst Ken Doctor says The Times has too many battles of its own to wage to take on another risk.

DOCTOR: Some people are raising the question of how good an executive is he? It is just the hand The Times was dealt. It's the hand that Arthur Sulzberger was dealt. Life isn't fair.

FOLKENFLIK: Among those aggressively covering the story in the U.S., The New York Times. Its front page reporting is a reflection of its journalistic instincts, but an unwelcome reminder that Thompson's involvement in the story hasn't gone away.

David Folkenflik NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.