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Journalism’s changing prospects: The death of an ‘NYT’ publisher

The obituary in the Sunday (Sept. 30) New York Times of Arthur Ochs (Punch) Sulzberger, 86, longtime publisher of the Times, must have been one of the longest on record. He deserved it. He led the newspaper through historic years of growth and transition and, perhaps as importantly, was a fine human being.

He probably will be remembered most notably for his decision in 1971 to publish the Pengagon Papers, a collection of internal government cables and memoranda dealing with Vietnam policy — a decision opposed by the Nixon administation but upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Sulzberger family reign at the Times has coincided for more than 60 years with that of the Graham family at The Washington Post.

Post publisher Katharine Graham made a similar difficult decision a few years later to pursue the Nixon Watergate scandal against fierce White House opposition. The two families and their newspapers enjoyed a real but entirely friendly rivalry.

Punch Sulzberger became Times publisher in 1963 during the heyday of daily print journalism in the United States. Until reading his obituaries, I had not known that many family members, and important stockholders, considered him unready at the time for the responsibility. His brother-in-law and predecessor as publisher, Orvil Dryfoos, had died suddenly at age 50. Punch Sulzberger had been working in Times management but not near Dryfoos' level. His gentlemanly, courteous demeanor might have created doubts about his capacity to weigh difficult options and make decisions. It should not have. He had seen action in both World War II and the Korean War.

A full account of Sulzberger's stewardsip of the Times can be found in the lengthy obituary. I will share here my personal observations of the man.

To those aspiring to or respecting a career in journalism, the Times was the gold standard in the 1960s and 1970s.  As a Coumbia University Graduate School of Journalism student in 1955-56, I found that many on the faculty were present or former Times editors and writers. (The J-School was seen as a good route to a job on the Times, by the way, and a couple of my classmates stayed in New York to make careers there; one was John Lee, who for many years was a Times senior editor). Later, during my own career in national policy and politics, I came to know well most of the paper's editors, columnists, and national correspondents — and wrote periodic op-eds for the paper over many years. A member of Punch Sulzberger's family, by marriage, was Peter Straus, a broadcast pioneer in New York and a foreign-aid oficial in the Johnson administration. Straus, who died two months ago, also was a fine man as well as highly motivated public servant.

In 1968, after my boss Vice President Hubert Humphrey's defeat for the presidency, Max Frankel, then the paper's Washington, D.C. bureau chief, offered me a job in the bureau. But I felt more comfortable being a participant than an observer, a journalist's ultimate role, and also knew that the Times, like other large organizations, had its share of internal politicking and gamesmanship. I instead took a transition job as vice president of Columbia University, charged with subduing turmoil of the previous year and helping return the university to normal. At Columbia, Punch Sulzberger was a highly active and conscientious trustee.

He spoke up at trustee meetings on behalf of sometimes-drastic changes that interim President Andrew Cordier and I were proposing. He took time to meet with undergraduate students. He offered to help, and did, in discussing change with fellow trustees, faculty members, and alumni. I cannot imagine a more positive and constructive presence than his during a difficult period for his alma mater. And all of it done with the utmost courtesy and respect for dissenting views.

In later years I would see Punch Sulzberger occasionally — at Times bureau Christmas parties in Washington, D.C.; as he spoke (along with Katharine Graham) at Times columnist James Reston's funeral service in the capital. But I mainly heard of him through day-to-day discussion and gossip with friends at the Times. Over many years I never heard a negative or back-biting comment about him from those who worked for and with him.

The Times obituary relates that only once did he overrule an editorial-board political endorsement decision. He insisted on an endorsement in 1976 for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination in New York of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then seen as a sometimes quixotic policy intellectural, over big-hatted movement leader Bella Abzug. Editorial-page editor John Oakes registered his dissent by sending a letter to the editor &mdash' that is, to himself— which was published in the paper. I always thought that Sulzberger made the right call. Moynihan went on to a long and productive career in the U.S. Senate.

When Punch Sulzberger retired in 1997, he passed the reins of Times leadership to his son, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., known as "Pinch." There was restiveness then, as Punch had faced earlier, that Pinch was not up to the responsibility. His tenure has coincided with a dramatic falloff in the fortunes of daily print journalism in the United States, along with choppy financial waters, and he has received continuing internal and external sniping. I do not know and talk with present Times editors. But, among those who are retired, dissatisfaction with Pinch is common. His father was a hard act to follow.

Who knows what lies ahead for The New York Times and its various properties, as well as for other American daily newspapers? They clearly are not going to reclaim, no matter what, the ascendant position they once held in informing and influencing important opinion. Not in this age of short-attention-span social media.

Punch Sulzberger led the Times wisely and well over 34 years and, at the same time, was a good husband and father, citizen of his country and city, important man of his time, and decent and humane person. The youngest of his parents' four children, and their only son, he conducted the family business in a way that would have made them proud.

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