Publisher printed Pentagon Papers




5-2-1926 29-9-12


ARTHUR "Punch" Sulzberger, who in three decades as publisher of The New York Times helped revamp the newspaper with special sections, diversified the company's business and fought the US government's attempt to halt the paper's printing of the Pentagon Papers, has died. He was 86.

Sulzberger, who had been ill with Parkinson's disease, died at his home in Southampton, New York.

"Punch, the old marine captain who never backed down from a fight, was an absolutely fierce defender of the freedom of the press," said Arthur Sulzberger jnr, his son and successor as chairman and publisher. "His inspired leadership in landmark cases such as New York Times v Sullivan and the Pentagon Papers helped to expand access to critical information and to prevent government censorship and intimidation."

Sulzberger surprised sceptics within his family and at the Times by transforming the newspaper into a publicly owned media company with holdings in magazines, television, radio stations and newspapers in the US and Europe.

"Over the course of more than 30 years, Arthur helped transform The New York Times and secure its status as one of the most successful and respected newspapers in the world," said President Barack Obama. "He was a firm believer in the importance of a free and independent press one that isn't afraid to seek the truth, hold those in power accountable and tell the stories that need to be told."

The Times won 31 Pulitzer Prizes from 1963, when he became publisher, until he retired and became chairman emeritus.

Sulzberger's biggest decision as publisher came in June 1971, when he gave the go-ahead to print the Pentagon Papers, the 7000-page Defence Department report that revealed the US government had lied about its escalating involvement in Vietnam.

Publishing the report set off

a showdown with President Richard Nixon's White House, a battle the Times won when the Supreme Court ruled the government did not have the right to stop publication on national security grounds.

"Thank goodness," Sulzberger said later. "You can only do a few of those in a lifetime."

The New York Times v Sullivan case was a 1964 Supreme Court decision that strengthened protections of the press against libel suits brought by public figures.

Sulzberger was born in New York to Arthur Sulzberger and Iphigene Ochs. She was the daughter of Adolph Ochs, who bought the near-bankrupt Times in 1896 for $US75,000.

The elder Sulzberger nicknamed his only son "Punch". He also called him "the Hapless One" for his mediocre record at various private schools only later was Punch diagnosed with the reading disorder dyslexia.

To prove his toughness, Sulzberger enlisted at 18 in the US Marine Corps during World War II. His desire to serve in combat was thwarted when Sulzberger's father persuaded General Douglas MacArthur to assign Punch to a desk job in the Philippines. Sulzberger forever resented his father's meddling.

Sulzberger graduated from Columbia University in 1951 with a degree in English and history, then served again in the marines during the Korean War until the truce was signed in 1953.

He began in journalism as a reporter at The Milwaukee Journal, followed by stints at Times bureaus in Paris, London and Rome. From 1955, he held mid-level posts in the business and production departments, languishing "without a job of substance," his oldest sister Marian said.

On June 20, 1963, though his father had baulked at first, Sulzberger at the age of 37 became the youngest publisher of The New York Times.

On being named to the post, he demonstrated the deprecating wit that colleagues said marked his tenure. "My sister Ruth called me after my first day as publisher and asked me how it had gone," he recalled, "and I said, 'I've made my first executive decision. I've decided not to throw up'."

The company's finances were Sulzberger's initial concern. The Times had been loosely run as a family enterprise, seemingly indifferent to financial discipline.

A printers' strike demonstrated a need to diversify beyond a single newspaper. Selling stock to the public seemed a logical way to raise money, although some family members were concerned that this could in the future spark a hostile takeover.

As a result, the company decided to create two classes of shares, one to be traded publicly and a second to be controlled by family members with the right to appoint members to the board of directors. On January 14, 1969, The New York Times Company was listed on the American Stock Exchange.

Family control was entrenched in 1986 when its adult members signed a covenant forbidding descendants from selling their super-voting shares to anyone outside the family.

In an interview the Times published on his retirement, Sulzberger said his most momentous decision was to publish the Pentagon Papers.

He was first told of the documents in April 1971, a month after the newspaper obtained them from Daniel Ellsberg, a former Defence Department researcher. The Times' chief outside counsel argued against publication. Sulzberger sided with the newsroom, saying "it was the duty of the Times not to stay out of trouble but to defend the First Amendment", recalled James Reston, a former Times editor.

After publishing the first instalment on June 13, 1971, Sulzberger received a telegram the next day from US attorney-general John Mitchell demanding the newspaper stop publication and return the document. Instead, the Times published the material for a third day. Mitchell then obtained a restraining order, which Sulzberger honoured.

On June 30, the Supreme Court issued a 6-3 ruling against the government. The Times continued to publish the report, winning a Pulitzer Prize for its work.

In the 1970s, the Arab oil embargo plunged the nation into recession, and New York City verged on bankruptcy. Rather than retrench, Sulzberger invested in new sections to broaden the paper's appeal to the city's changing demographics and its growing suburbs.

When he became publisher in 1963, the Times' annual sales totalled $US101 million on his retirement in 1997, the company's annual revenue

was $US2.9 billion.

When he left as Times chairman in 1997, he remained convinced that newspapers at least good newspapers had a bright future.

"I think that paper and ink are here to stay for the kind of newspapers we print," he said. "There's no shortage of news in this world. If you want news, you can go to cyberspace and grab out all this junk. But I don't think most people are competent to become editors, or have the time or the interest."

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