Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, 1926–2012
The newspaper chief who published the Pentagon Papers
Arthur Ochs Sulzberger was perhaps the most influential publisher in the history of The New York Times. But Sulzberger—known almost universally as Punch—wore his power lightly. Upon learning one day that his editorial page was about to oppose a congressional candidate he and his wife were close friends with, he said nothing—but the next day he sent the wounded friend a dozen roses.
Sulzberger was born in New York City the scion of the Ochs-Sulzberger family, who had published The New York Times since 1896, said the Los Angeles Times. His first real job was as a U.S. Marine, serving in Japan as a jeep driver for Gen. Douglas MacArthur and then as a public-information officer in Korea. When he finally did join the family trade, as a reporter in 1953, his skills proved “far from dazzling.” While on the Times foreign desk in France, he attended a motor race at Le Mans in which a driver accidentally plowed into the crowd, killing 83 people. Despite the story’s significant news value, “Sulzberger failed to call the office and report it.”
Sulzberger found his métier in 1963, said Time.com, when he was thrust from his post as a lowly assistant treasurer at the Times into the position of publisher, following his brother-in-law’s sudden death. He overcame his inexperience to forge a reputation as an innovator, forcing the Times to evolve from a “respected city broadsheet to a global news outlet.” He developed the concept of the op-ed page in 1970 as a space for columnists to air opinions, and created sports, science, and culture sections in the 1970s that, though common now, were considered “a betrayal of the paper’s serious history” at the time. He also introduced color presses, and started a national edition that now makes up over half the newspaper’s daily circulation.
But Sulzberger’s “defining moment” came in 1971, said The New York Times, when he defied government demands that he not publish the Pentagon Papers, a classified government history of the Vietnam War detailing “Washington’s legacy of deceit and evasion.” President Nixon, outraged at the paper’s coverage, secured a court order in the name of national security to prevent further publication after three articles appeared. The Times challenged the injunction and was eventually vindicated by the Supreme Court, in a ruling that “established the primacy of a free press in the face of a government’s insistence on secrecy.” The judgment also represented a personal victory for Sulzberger, who had risked his newspaper’s reputation “and perhaps even jail” by refusing to back down. The publisher later downplayed the significance of the decision, joking that the hardest thing about the episode was reading all 7,000 pages of the leaked documents. “Until I read the Pentagon Papers,” he said, “I did not know it was possible to read and sleep at the same time.”
Sulzberger stepped down as publisher in 1992, said the Associated Press, and as chairman and chief executive of the newspaper’s parent company in 1997, handing both posts down to his son, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. Newspapers themselves would come to seem all but redundant over the following decade, as the Internet became the pre-eminent outlet for breaking news. But Sulzberger insisted there would always be demand for his product. “You’re not buying news when you buy The New York Times,” he said. “You’re buying judgment.”