Arthur O. “Punch” Sulzberger, who in three decades as publisher of the New York Times (NYT) helped revamp the newspaper with special sections, diversified the company’s business and fought the U.S. 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 today at his home in Southampton, New York, the Times reported.
“Punch, the old Marine captain who never backed down from a fight, was an absolutely fierce defender of the freedom of the press,” Arthur Sulzberger Jr., his son and successor as chairman and publisher, said in a statement. “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 skeptics 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 U.S. 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,” President Barack Obama said in statement. “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.”
At Sulzberger’s retirement party in 1997, Katharine Graham, the former Washington Post publisher, said “above all, he took the quality of the product to an entirely new level.” She died in 2001.
As publisher, Sulzberger oversaw enlargement of the weekday Times to four-sections, the start of its national editions and the introduction of its “Op-Ed” page, now a staple of newspapers. 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 7,000-page Defense Department report that revealed the U.S. 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 didn’t 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.
Arthur Ochs Sulzberger was born in New York on Feb. 5, 1926, to Arthur Hays Sulzberger and Iphigene Bertha Ochs. She was the daughter of Adolph Ochs, who bought the near-bankrupt Times in 1896 for $75,000. The son of German-Jewish immigrants, Ochs was the owner of the Chattanooga Times.
When Ochs died in 1935, Iphigene’s 43-year-old husband became the publisher. Arthur Hays Sulzberger served until 1961, then appointed as publisher his oldest daughter Marian’s husband, Orvil E. Dryfoos.
‘The Hapless One’
The elder Sulzberger nicknamed his only son “Punch.” (It came from “Punch & Judy” puppets and countered his youngest daughter’s name, Judith.) 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 U.S. 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.
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 midlevel posts in the business and production departments, languishing “without a job of substance,” his oldest sister Marian told Susan Tifft and Alec Jones in their 1999 book “The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times.”
Dryfoos was publisher of the Times for only two years; he died in 1963 of heart failure, two months after a 114-day strike against the city’s newspapers by the printers union.
On June 20, 1963, though his father had balked at first, Punch Sulzberger at age 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.
The 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 Jan. 14, 1969, New York Times was listed on the American Stock Exchange at $42 a share.
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 Defense Department researcher. The Times’s 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, in his book “Deadline: A Memoir.”
After publishing the first installment on June 13, 1971, Sulzberger received a telegram the next day from U.S. 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 honored.
On June 30, the Supreme Court issued a 6-3 ruling against the government, declaring that prior restraint wasn’t justified. 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.
The daily paper grew from two parts -- one devoted to foreign and national news, and another to metropolitan-area news -- to four. Each weekday edition had a special section, such as Sports on Monday, Science on Tuesday, Weekend on Friday, as well as a new daily business section. The sections helped increase the newspaper’s reach, advertising revenue and circulation.
Sulzberger also backed executive editor A.M. “Abe” Rosenthal’s efforts to make the Times more readable by pushing reporters to write with authority and to produce lighter feature stories.
In the mid-1980s, however, Sulzberger intervened when the newsroom under Rosenthal was wracked by dissension. Rosenthal became a columnist and was replaced by Max Frankel. In his book “The Times of My Life and My Life with the Times,” Frankel said Sulzberger told him at the time:
“Make a great paper even greater. Help to break in my son Arthur as the next publisher. Make the newsroom a happy place again.”
It was rare for Sulzberger to get so obviously involved in the newsroom’s operation, associates said.
“Unpretentiousness is his greatest gift,” Frankel said in a 1997 Times interview. “He was remarkably serene about letting his subordinates do their work. His interventions were extremely polite.”
Nor did Sulzberger disagree, overtly, with the paper’s editorial stance. Instead, he voiced dissent by writing letters to the paper (which it published) and that were signed “A. Sock,” a play on his nickname.
He ended the practice in 1979 after Gail Gregg, his daughter-in-law, wrote a rebuttal to one of his letters, ending with the line, “Mr. Sock deserves a punch.” His identity had been revealed, Sulzberger decided.
In 1992, Sulzberger passed the title of publisher to his son Arthur Jr., marking the fourth generation of family leadership.
Sulzberger’s three-decades of overseeing the Times weren’t without missteps. In 1993, he approved acquiring the Boston Globe for $1.1 billion; the purchase led to an $814.4 million writedown of the company’s New England media properties in 2007.
Still, when Sulzberger became publisher in 1963, the Times’ annual sales totaled $101 million; on his retirement in 1997, the company’s annual revenue was $2.9 billion. He also widened the paper’s influence in 1967 by becoming a co-owner with the Washington Post (WPO) of the International Herald Tribune, now owned solely by the Times.
Aside from being chairman emeritus, in his later years, he also served as chairman of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Fresh Air Fund.
In addition to his son, Arthur Jr., Sulzberger had a daughter, Karen Alden Sulzberger, from his marriage to Barbara Grant, which ended in divorce in 1956. He had two other daughters, Cynthia Fox Sulzberger from his marriage to Carol Fox Sulzberger, who died in 1995, and Cathy Jean Sulzberger, who was adopted by Sulzberger and Fox.
Sulzberger’s third wife, Allison Cowles, whom he married in 1996, died in April 2010.
He resided in Manhattan in a Fifth Avenue apartment, according to the Times.
A line in Sulzberger’s farewell message to Times employees on his retirement reflected the satisfaction he found in his career: “It’s been a glorious run -- up some hills but down a lot more.”
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