FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Paper King of the Gray Lady

by BINOY KAMPMARK

My conclusion is simple. Nepotism works.

— Arthur Ochs Sulzberger

Arthur Ochs Sulzberger has left us aged 86, though the old gray lady he was a steward to still remains, casting her lingering shadow over the publishing world, wrinkles and all.  The shadow of the New York Times has not always been a consistently cast one. The paper has maintained its aristocratic front for decades, but Sulzberger’s time saw it transform into a profitable, multi-sectioned grandiosity.

That particular era was monarchical and expansive, covering 34 years.  In 1963, the man nicknamed “Punch” took over as publisher (his grandfather Adolph S. Ochs having bought the paper in 1896), finding the coffers in a poor state. If the words of his father on seeing him at birth were anything to go by, Punch had certainly acquitted himself well.  Service in the Marines certainly bolstered his flagging confidence, though he saw little combat, courtesy of an understanding between General Macarthur and his father.

Some of the paper’s figures during Punch’s tenure are impressive – the 31 Pulitzer prizes the publication netted, and the increased circulation from 714,000 in 1963 to 1.1 million in 1992.  Annual revenues climbed from $100 million to a healthy $1.7 billion (AP, Sep 30). In the 1990s, the reins of power were passed to Arthur Sulzberger Jr..

The gray lady, for that reason, ceased being one during Sulzberger’s time.  Colour presses were brought in, as did special themed sections that could hardly, in the old credo of the paper, be deemed “news”. Dry stories and serious commentary was interspersed with luxury and food sections. The paper became one of national record, a country’s barometric metre.

The various court battles fought by the paper under Sulzberger were intense. In 1964, the US Supreme Court found in New York Times v. Sullivan that the press was protected from libel suits initiated by public figures unless evidence of actual malice could be shown.  That malice would take the form of knowledge of a statement’s falsity or reckless disregard to whether it was true or false.

When it came to his 1971 editorial decision to run the classified Defense Department history of US involvement in Vietnam, he framed the traditional position on whether such “state secrets” needed to be given a public airing.  Releasing the Pentagon Papers in defiance of various requests not to do so was “not a breach of national security,” Sulzberger emphatically stated.  “We gave away no national secrets.  We didn’t jeopardise any American soldiers or marines overseas.”  Rarely has the First Amendment had such defenders, and Sulzberger certainly feared the consequences of his decision.

There is a hushed manner the Sulzbergers tend to be described by, creatures curiously adapted to the world of the paper mill yet seemingly at odds with modern corporate viciousness.  When a rapacious Rupert Murdoch went, and got, the Wall Street Journal, the contrast with the Bancroft family, who had relinquished their crown jewels, was drawn.  Joe Hagan, writing for New York Magazine (Oct 13, 2008), illustrated the point.  “The Sulzberger family is a different clan from the Bancrofts, who were divided by trust funds and populated with restless socialites and horse enthusiasts whose hobbies required access to substantial funds.”

This is not to suggest that the Sulzbergers have not been a colourful family brimming with quirks.  The Trust: the Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times (1999), a biography of these New York dynasts by Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones reveals them to be creatures of self-deprecating humour and abundant mischief.  They radiated power, but never gave the impression they aspired to it.

That said, the sustained and unflagging nepotism behind the paper – glibly remarked upon by Punch Sulzberger himself – has created an impenetrable mythology, the cult of the paper mill and the hallmark of traditional family business.  So much so that “Young Arthur” made a point of preventing an incursion by Stanley Investment Management to challenge the family’s control over the paper.  Whether that sustains itself remains to be seen. The whirly gig of time is turning.

The Times story is itself one of variation. The social Darwinist tendencies of the print industry have made the paper format difficult to sustain.  Decisions made by Sulzberger – take the acquisition of the Boston Globe – were not exactly top drawer deals, leading to substantial write downs.  There have been declines in the stock price under Sulzberger Jr.  Decisions were made when the paper was doing well to buy back stock rather than invest in new properties.

The Times can no longer be said to be merely the paper one receives in the mail.  It is myriad, protean, comprising multiple digital forms and a bewildering assortment of online formats.  In 2007, when Young Arthur was asked about the pressures of the digital future, he exclaimed that he wasn’t sure “whether we’ll be printing the Times in five years, and you know what?  I don’t care either” (American Journalism Review, April-May 2007).  Despite such pressures, the Sulzberger family have shown their mettle as the surviving aristocrats of the newspaper industry.  And Punch Sulzberger proved to be one of the best ones.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

February 28, 2017
Behrooz Ghamari Tabrizi
A Paradigm Shift in the Middle East: Iran as the Solution, Not the Problem
stclair
Big Brother Capitalism Strikes Back
Stephen Cooper
Trump’s Pusillanimous Immigration Policy Imperils the Public and the Police
Vincent Emanuele
The Madness of U.S. Empire
Michael Sainato and Chelsea Skojec
We Need the Endangered Species Act Now More Than Ever
David Underhill
Oops, They Did It Again: Crowd Bowls Over Rep in Beery Alley
John Eskow
Jimmy Kimmel is a Total Dick and Other Reflections on the Oscars
Steve Horn
Trump’s Top Energy Aide, Mike Catanzaro Peddled Climate Change Denial
Jack Random
The Trump Diaries: Week Five
Robert Fisk
The Education of Marine Le Pen
Pauline Murphy
Felicia Browne’s Fight Against Fascism
Mary Lynn Cramer
Fearing the Trump Impeachment
Mel Gurtov
While Our Attention is Elsewhere, Climate Change Worsens
Dan Bacher
Extinction 2017: California Edition
Abel Cohen
The Trojan President: America Never Saw It Coming
February 27, 2017
Anthony DiMaggio
Media Ban! Making Sense of the War Between Trump and the Press
Dave Lindorff
Resume Inflation at the NSC: Lt. General McMaster’s Silver Star Was Essentially Earned for Target Practice
Conn Hallinan
Is Trump Moderating US Foreign Policy? Hardly
Norman Pollack
Political Castration of State: Militarization of Government
Kenneth Surin
Inside Dharavi, a Mumbai Slum
Lawrence Davidson
Truth vs. Trump
Binoy Kampmark
The Extradition Saga of Kim Dotcom
Robert Fisk
Why a Victory Over ISIS in Mosul Might Spell Defeat in Deir Ezzor
David Swanson
Open Guantanamo!
Ted Rall
The Republicans May Impeach Trump
Lawrence Wittner
Why Should Trump―or Anyone―Be Able to Launch a Nuclear War?
Andrew Stewart
Down with Obamacare, Up with Single Payer!
Colin Todhunter
Message to John Beddington and the Oxford Martin Commission
David Macaray
UFOs: The Myth That Won’t Die?
Weekend Edition
February 24, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Exxon’s End Game Theory
Pierre M. Sprey - Franklin “Chuck” Spinney
Sleepwalking Into a Nuclear Arms Race with Russia
Paul Street
Liberal Hypocrisy, “Late-Shaming,” and Russia-Blaming in the Age of Trump
Ajamu Baraka
Malcolm X and Human Rights in the Time of Trumpism: Transcending the Master’s Tools
John Laforge
Did Obama Pave the Way for More Torture?
Mike Whitney
McMaster Takes Charge: Trump Relinquishes Control of Foreign Policy 
Patrick Cockburn
The Coming Decline of US and UK Power
Louisa Willcox
The Endangered Species Act: a Critical Safety Net Now Threatened by Congress and Trump
Vijay Prashad
A Foreign Policy of Cruel Populism
John Chuckman
Israel’s Terrible Problem: Two States or One?
Matthew Stevenson
The Parallax View of Donald Trump
Norman Pollack
Drumbeat of Fascism: Find, Arrest, Deport
Stan Cox
Can the Climate Survive Electoral Democracy? Maybe. Can It Survive Capitalism? No.
Ramzy Baroud
The Trump-Netanyahu Circus: Now, No One Can Save Israel from Itself
Edward Hunt
The United States of Permanent War
David Morgan
Trump and the Left: a Case of Mass Hysteria?
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail