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The Times of our Times

Tuesday, August 1, 2000

Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Rose

The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times

It is unlikely there will be another American newspaper with the prestige and influence of the New York Times. Indeed it was unlikely that there would be such a journalistic Alp at all when Adolph S. Ochs, with $750 to his name and a pile of debt, managed to buy the foundering paper in 1896.

In the twilight of the nineteenth century, New York City was robustly on its way to becoming the second largest metropolis in the world. In the newspaper arena, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal fiercely competed with Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, bringing "yellow journalism" to its brightest hue. Thus, to survive, the so-called quality papers — among them Charles A. Dana’s Sun and James Gordon Bennett Jr.’s Herald — could not ignore the bizarre, the shocking, and the improbable. On August 18, 1896, the day the 38-year-old Ochs formally took over the sick New York Times, the Sun featured "Body Sent to Morgue," the story of a man who had barely escaped being embalmed alive, along with a straightfaced news report headlined "A Fish that Plays the Piano." The Herald, not to be outdone, led with "Wife Uses a Whip," the tale of an adulterous millionaire who had been thrashed by his spouse in Atlantic City.

Susan Tifft and Alex S. Rose in The Trust sketch this newspaper climate in New York as Ochs, owner of a debt burdened Chattanooga newspaper, became proprietor of the New York Times. His audacious initiative inaugurated a century of family ownership of what is generally regarded as America’s premier newspaper. The Trust is not an analytical account of how the New York Times ascended to eminence, suitable for graduate journalism seminars. The subtitle portrays the book’s theme: "The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times." In large part, the book is a prodigiously reported exercise in what might be called the higher gossip. It is a lively tale writ large of the turbulence that appeals to the transom-peeper in most of us.

It is also a history that can’t be repeated. Family owned newspapers have gone the way of the dime pay phone. The corporate chains that have gobbled them up — Gannett is the hungriest shark in the sea, and the Chicago Tribune’s recent purchase of the Los Angeles Times makes it a very large fish looking for smaller fish to swallow — are themselves newspapers perhaps destined to become vestigial before the cyber-century is old enough to shave.

"Journalism" in the Information Age will be defined in a fashion radically different from that of the traditional trade, even as television in the post-World War II years drastically changed the newspaper business. In what may be a fascinating devolution, the figure of "the journalist" could soon come to be symbolized by that freebooting pioneer, Matt Drudge — an individual with a laptop operating without institutional tether on the Internet, rattling the cage of a geriatric establishment. The behemoths will mutate, even as they are busy doing with websites and reportorial updates on-line, and the big byte boys doubtless will launch more such ventures as Bill Gates’s online Slate. Whether the wondrous technology that is propelling this transformation will conduce to a better informed citizenry of the republic — well, that dough is still rising.

Adolph Simon Ochs, the paterfamilias of the Times, was a man of relentless ambition and personal diffidence. Born in 1858, the son of German Jewish immigrants, he grew up between contending force fields: His father, Julius, a "dreamy and accommodating man," was an abolitionist who served in the Union army; his mother, Bertha, was as formidable as an avalanche and so passionate a supporter of the Confederacy that she was arrested for smuggling quinine to rebels across the Ohio River from Cincinnati during the Civil War.

That Adolph had to navigate between this domestic Scylla and Charybdis makes understandable his lifelong avoidance of confrontation. What became the credo of the New York Times — "to give the news impartially, without fear or favor" — might have been a way of taming the contending viewpoints he grew up between, as well as a general disavowal of journalistic prejudice. In a time when newspapers were usually organs of or closely aligned with political factions, the declaration of ideological neutrality would serve the newspaper well.

The biography of Adolph Ochs is what we like to think of as an American life, and it is emblematic of the possibilities this country historically has offered. He went to work at age 11 to help his hard-pressed, large family. His engaging personality and maturity advanced him rapidly from office boy to printer’s devil to journeyman printer and reporter on Knoxville and Louisville papers. When his father failed to account for a sizable sum as an insurance agent, the family’s possessions were mortgaged. The disgrace "had a transformative effect on Adolph," write Tifft and Rose. Adolph went partners, his share on "sweat equity," to start a paper in Chattanooga. The enterprise promptly failed, but Adolph regrouped and created the Daily Times there in 1878. With little more than loose change as capital, Ochs resorted to creative financing as well as commercial sleight of hand now and then, a practice typical of the era — and one that he would continue in New York. He met Iphigenia Miriam Wise, "Effie," while on a newsprint buying trip to Cincinnati. Her father was a rabbi and founder of Reform Judaism in America; though he was skeptical about an alliance between his daughter and an "obscure printer," they were married in 1883.

Ochs was so mired in debt with his Chattanooga paper that he was practically a pauper. "So it was all the more remarkable that as his situation became more and more desperate, Adolph decided to dig himself out not only by acquiring another newspaper in order to generate income but by acquiring a newspaper in New York," write Tifft and Rose. "With his back against the wall — a position that always invigorated him — he determined to own a paper in the biggest, most competitive and sophisticated market in the country."

The New York Times, a paper established as a conservative counterpoise to Horace Greeley’s Tribune, was sliding toward bankruptcy. With Western populism swelling, investors in the failing enterprise were eager to continue a conservative journal. Ochs, hearing of this situation, packed his bag for New York and set out to convince stockholders that he was capable of keeping the foundering ship afloat. "Now for the supremacy of gall for a country newspaper man burdened with debt!" he wrote to Effie.

He engineered a partnership in 1896 that would award him a majority stock interest if the company under his management showed a profit for three consecutive years. He fudged sales figures, played a wily game of bob-and-weave in promotion, and in a desperate tactic slashed the paper’s price to one cent from three cents. Remarkably, by the end of 1898, his cleanly printed paper with its "elevated tone" had become a "paragon of respectability." It was selling 60,000 copies a day, then over 90,000 at the start of the new century. Revenues gained commensurately. Four years after taking over, the controlling stock of the New York Times belonged to Adolph Ochs.

Ochs consistently put profits back into the paper and earned a reputation for journalistic reliability and objectivity. "The blank impersonality of the New York Times conformed to his philosophy of good journalism; it also gave him a curtain behind which he could labor in relative safety. What Hearst, Pulitzer, and Bennett sought was money, political power and notoriety; what Adolph sought was admiration."

As a peaceful transfer of power defines a stable polity, so does effective succession affect an institution. But Ochs procrastinated and dithered. His two obvious journalistic heirs were the man who had married his only child, Iphigene, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, and his nephew, Julius Ochs Adler. The eventual choice of his son-in-law did not produce amity among the extended family — a pattern that would repeat itself. Ochs then created a trust that would insure that ownership of the newspaper would remain within the family (even after it would be taken public, decades later). The "trust" of the title obviously refers both to the stock agreement and to the family’s sense of obligation to the institution.

Iphigene was rather a spoiled little rich girl, but one with a good head. Over the decades she would become the de facto power behind the editorial throne, her husband the (often resentful) operating generalissimo of the New York Times. Arthur Hays Sulzberger was, not to put too fine a point on it, a monster (the reviewer’s judgment, not the authors’). He treated Iphigene with contempt, often denigrating her in front of others. A womanizer, he flaunted his extracurricular tootsies, especially a decades-long dalliance with British actress Madeleine Carroll, blatantly inviting her to the family estate, Hillandale, with his wife present.

The powerful editor was as callous in his treatment of the couple’s son, Arthur Hays Sulzberger Jr., the only boy among three sisters. Born with a learning disability, "Punch," as he would always be known, had a ragged school life. His father’s interests were not his, nor did Arthur Sr. spend much time with his presumed successor. In 1943, the teenager "impulsively" left the prestigious Loomis School and enlisted in the Marine Corps. "Punch was aware that his life up to that point had been a series of failures and disappointments," and his success at Parris Island (as the recruit platoon’s top marksman) "boosted his battered self-confidence." His father, however, unknown to Punch, colluded with Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the young Marine was attached to the general’s staff as a "gofer." Though he was never told how the noncombatant transfer came about, Punch had his suspicions. Reticent as he was, it would be 10 years and a few drinks before he would confront the senior Sulzberger — "and exploded with full force at his father," to the horror of guests who were present. "I never really forgave him," said Punch of the humiliating paternal intrusion.

Adolph S. Ochs had died in 1935, and Arthur Hays Sulzberger Sr. was presiding over the most consequential newspaper in the most powerful nation in the world as Germany and Japan were defeated and the Cold War began. He walked with presidents and the political barons of America. The newspaper was both admired and reviled by those in power; it could not be ignored. Though Punch was the newspaper’s Prince of Wales, his father largely left him to shift for himself in learning the business. After a crunching competition within and among nonfamily executives, Punch Sulzberger was named to succeed his father as publisher.

Punch’s stewardship was a capable one — surprising to those within and outside the family who expected little of him. The four-star editors and high-octane columnists during his and his father’s tenure constitute a roster of admired newspapermen, among them Arthur Krock, James Reston, Turner Catledge, Max Frankel, and Abe Rosenthal. Authors Tifft and Rose fully reprise the years and the personalities in a smooth narrative, recounting the paper’s successes and failures: the Bay of Pigs scoop that wasn’t published; the Pentagon Papers; the uncritical coverage of and editorial support for Fidel Castro (curiously, the authors make no mention of reporter Walter Duranty’s shilling for Stalin during the 1930s, exculpating the dictator from responsibility for the appalling famine he induced). Punch eased Ochs cousin John Oakes from his editorship of the editorial page, which Oakes had moved too far left of Punch’s more traditional centrism, and began new "lifestyle" sections that thickened both the paper and its income.

The most recent transition of power was also less than graceful, from Punch to his son, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. As with his own father, Punch had not been especially close to his son. If a shaping influence in the father’s life was in the Carolinas at Marine boot camp, his son’s was also in the Carolinas — at an Outward Bound camp, a sort of "Jungle Gym" for privileged youth. It was a "defining experience," Arthur Jr. would say. This was perhaps fitting for a child of the 1960s, demonstrating against the Vietnam war and developing a reputation as "doctrinarilly anti-business." He also would discover his Jewishness in these years, in a family which had never paid particular attention to its heritage. But his goal since childhood had been to succeed his father, and he learned the trade as a reporter away from the family paper.

Back at the Times and training to perch at the top of the pole, Arthur Jr. was distinctly left of center, a cocky and confrontational young man. As he moved toward the seat of power, his stepmother, Carol, adamantly opposed him, not wishing to relinquish the status and influence she exercised as the publisher’s wife. She considered Arthur Jr. "an arrogant phony." Finally, in 1992 and after another round of bruising infighting of a kind not unfamiliar in great institutions, the young man was named his father’s successor.

In the years since, the newspaper has reflected a consistently leftist editorial policy under Arthur Jr.’s choice for editor of that page, Howell Raines, and devoted a much higher portion of its news columns to "soft" news. Its journalistic perspective has delighted the constituencies for dramatic social change in a race-class-gender mode. Indicative of where Arthur Jr. would take the Times is that shortly before his coronation and while negotiating a contract with the Newspaper Guild, he tried to finesse a "same-sex" benefits provision without telling his father. Punch scuttled the maneuver when he learned of it, but the issue was consonant with his son’s vision for the institution.

The New York Times remains a dominant newspaper. It does a good many things well. But the trust in its reporting felt by many national leaders and readers for so long, close to ex cathedra reverence, is far more conditional now.

Authority, in a word finally, was what the family ownership of the New York Times represented in the century of ownership, now being carried on in the fourth generation. As potent media proprietors, the family operated as gatekeeper — that is, one of the small number of sentinels who judged what was "news" at a given moment, who determined what fads and trends passed a cultural taste test and were therefore worthy of public discussion.

The revolution still accelerating through the "communications" universe has already atrophied the role of authority and the function of gatekeeping. To be sure, the quality with which either has been exercised over this century has been uneven, to put it mildly — almost wholly dependent on the character and judgment of the individuals involved. Which is to say, the power of the gatekeepers has been hierarchical, not consensual. And we have come increasingly to think of consent as indispensable in legitimizing power.

Wherever this radical transformation in information technology eventually takes us, it will make "authority" and "gatekeeping" almost hilariously superfluous. The demotic tidal wave that the Internet represents will wash over pillars of institutional judgment as if so many sand castles. There is in such a prospect a tincture of the anarchic, but that tincture seems destined always to seep into the crevices of a society that has become ever more democratic and egalitarian, less republican and delegative in its forms.

There certainly will be men and women of vast wealth who will control the new engines of information. Bill Gates is a conspicuous horse early out of the chute. They will also have power of a magnitude that we perhaps would rather not think about at the moment. But it is hard to imagine any of them creating new media dynasties with the authority of the Ochs-Sulzberger clan, nor its gatekeeping function. Everyone with a computer and the wit to go on-line has the means to reject any such claims — which is to say, the power to transform gatekeeping itself into a consensual relationship.