Remembrances
4:17 pm
Sat September 29, 2012

Publisher Who Transformed The 'New York Times' Dies

Originally published on Sun September 30, 2012 1:52 pm

The quiet man who modernized The New York Times over more than three decades and stubbornly defended the press against government interference died early Saturday at his home in Long Island.

Former publisher and Times Company chairman Arthur O. Sulzberger Sr. had suffered from Parkinson's disease. He was 86.

Sulzberger's family had owned the Times since 1896, and he was named publisher when his brother-in-law, Orvil Dryfoos, died unexpectedly in 1963.

An ex-Marine, Arthur "Punch" Sulzberger was unfairly considered an intellectual lightweight. He later acknowledged he was never trained for the job, saying he was a bit "shell shocked" at the time.

The Times' finances were shaky after an extended strike hit New York City's newspapers particularly hard, and Sulzberger would soon be tested on other fronts.

At the White House, President John F. Kennedy asked him to pull a young David Halberstam from Vietnam, because of Halberstam's critical coverage of the war.

"Punch went back to the Washington bureau of The Times and called Halberstam and said, 'Your vacation is canceled; you may not leave Vietnam,'" says Alex Jones, co-author of The Trust, a book on the family and the paper. "He was not going to be intimidated."

In 1971, the paper obtained a secret history of the mistakes enmeshing the U.S. in Vietnam, and how the public had been deceived over time. The Nixon White House said The Times would be endangering national security by printing the Pentagon Papers.

Sulzberger published them, and explained why at a press conference.

"These papers, I think as our editorial said this morning, were really a part of history that should have been made available considerably longer ago," Sulzberger said.

The Nixon administration went to the Supreme Court to order the paper to stop publishing, but the Times prevailed.

"This was the first time that the establishment newspaper of all, The New York Times, defied the government by publishing something the government explicitly did not want published," Jones says. "And [they] did so because they considered it to be their responsibility to make that decision."

While considering such coverage to be at the core of the paper, Sulzberger also recognized the "Gray Lady" needed rejuvenation.

Max Frankel, a former Washington bureau chief and executive editor for the paper, says part of that was because it became so costly to cover the world.

"It became so important to find new sources of revenue [and] new audiences along the way," Frankel says.

Frankel says Sulzberger personally pushed for new opinion pages, opposite the paper's liberal editorials, to host more conservative voices. The paper also created new sections devoted to lifestyle, science, arts and sports.

"The guiding spirit was, 'Yes, we are everything to everybody,'" he says. "And what's news? It's anything that's important or interesting."

In doing so, Frankel says, Sulzberger successfully pursued an affluent readership and advertising base with a national reach, assuring decades of financial stability and growth.

"In the end, no matter what other pressures came at him, he went with quality journalism and trust in the people who were editing his paper," he says.

Now, Sulzberger's son, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., leads the paper as it faces a new generation of financial challenges in the digital age.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

The quiet man who modernized The New York Times over more than three decades and stubbornly defended the press against government interference died early today at his home in Long Island. Former publisher and Times Chairman Arthur O. Sulzberger Sr. had suffered from Parkinson's disease. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik has this remembrance.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: His family had owned the Times since 1896, and he was named publisher when his brother-in-law died unexpectedly in 1963. But Punch Sulzberger, an ex-Marine, was unfairly considered an intellectual lightweight. And as he later acknowledged, he was never trained for the job.

ARTHUR SULZBERGER: I think I was a little bit shell-shocked at that time.

FOLKENFLIK: The Times' finances were shaky after an extended newspaper union strike, and Sulzberger would soon be tested on other fronts. President John F. Kennedy asked him at the White House to pull a young David Halberstam from Vietnam because of his critical coverage of the war. Alex S. Jones is coauthor of "The Trust," a book on the family and the paper.

ALEX S. JONES: Punch went back to the Washington bureau of the Times and called Halberstam and said: Your vacation is canceled. You may not leave Vietnam. He was not going to be intimidated.

FOLKENFLIK: In 1971, the paper obtained a secret history of the mistakes enmeshing the U.S. in Vietnam and how the public had been deceived over time. The Nixon White House said the Times would be endangering national security by printing the Pentagon papers. Sulzberger published them and explained why at a press conference.

SULZBERGER: These papers, I think as our editorial said this morning, were really a part of history that should have been made available considerably longer ago.

FOLKENFLIK: The Nixon administration went to the Supreme Court to order the paper to stop publishing, but the Times prevailed. Again, Alex Jones.

JONES: This was the first time, the first time, that the establishment newspaper of all, The New York Times, defied the government by publishing something the government explicitly did not want published and did so because they considered it to be their responsibility to make that decision.

FOLKENFLIK: While considering such coverage to be at the core of the paper, Sulzberger also recognized that the "Gray Lady" needed rejuvenation. Max Frankel is a former Washington bureau chief and executive editor for the paper.

MAX FRANKEL: I mean, it became so costly to cover the world. It became so important to find new sources of revenue, new audiences along the way.

FOLKENFLIK: Frankel said Sulzberger personally pushed for new opinion pages opposite the paper's liberal editorials to host more conservative voices. And the paper created new sections devoted to lifestyle, science, arts and sports.

FRANKEL: The guiding spirit was, yes, we are everything to everybody. And what's news? It's anything that's important or interesting.

FOLKENFLIK: In so doing, Frankel said, Sulzberger successfully pursued readership and advertising that was both affluent and national, assuring decades of financial stability and growth. Now, his son, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., leads the paper, as it faces a new generation of financial challenges in the digital age. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.