The Two-Way
8:24 am
Sat September 29, 2012

Former New York Times Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Dies At 86

Originally published on Sat September 29, 2012 2:06 pm

Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the longtime former publisher of The New York Times, has died after a long illness, the paper reports:

"Mr. Sulzberger's tenure, as publisher of the newspaper and as chairman and chief executive of The New York Times Company, reached across 34 years, from the heyday of postwar America to the twilight of the 20th century, from the era of hot lead and Linotype machines to the birth of the digital world."

The New York Times prospered under Sulzberger's guidance, leading the way in financially difficult times through innovation and savvy management. Under Sulzberger, the paper added sections and editions, won 31 Pulitzer prizes, and played a historic role in defending the First Amendment.

It was Sulzberger who ultimately decided to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971, fighting a government attempt to keep the classified reports on the Vietnam War secret. In the landmark 1964 case New York Times Co. vs. Sullivan, the Supreme Court ruled that the press was protected from libel lawsuits from public figures unless they could prove actual malice — a major victory supporting freedom of the press.

Sulzberger's grandfather bought the paper in 1896, and Sulzberger took over as publisher in 1963. It's still run by the family, the Times notes, "a rarity in an age when the management of most American newspapers is determined by distant corporate boards."

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Former New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger has died today. He was 86 years old. Mr. Sulzberger took over the New York Times in 1963 after his brother-in-law and predecessor died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Arthur Ochs Sulzberger was 37, the youngest publisher in the newspaper's history.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED TAPE)

ARTHUR OCHS SULZBERGER: As I told my sister Ruth, said do I bade my first executive decision, decided not to throw up.

SIMON: For more on the legacy of Arthur Ochs Salzberger, we're joined now by NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik. David, thanks for being with us.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Of course.

SIMON: And Arthur Salzberger took over this venerable institution in the 1960s. It had been a family-held operation since 1896. What were some of the different issues that he confronted?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, you heard the nervousness there in Salsberger's voice. The Times had just emerged from a crippling strike affecting the newspaper industry in New York, and there were, as you suggest, changing times affecting the newspaper and The Times in particular; the civil rights movement, the question of Vietnam War.

One of his first tests was being asked by John F. Kennedy, just before Kennedy's death, to remove young David Halberstam from Vietnam for his critical coverage of the effort there. Salzberger stood firm in an early test of his journalistic integrity.

SIMON: And then, of course, he made the decision for The Times to go ahead and publish the Pentagon Papers under the Nixon administration. What happened, what was at stake?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, of course, the Pentagon Papers were a secret history of the origins and the missions of the war, what had really happened, as opposed to what the American public had been told. That was a history compiled by, you know, aides under President Lyndon Baines Johnson, but kept secret. It was published under President Nixon in June, 1971. Nixon, although wasn't really about his record in Vietnam, was adamant this could not be published. His administration went to federal court to prevent publication, sought prior restraint. That is the ability to prevent newspapers from publishing before something gets into print.

The New York Times went ahead and published, and here is Salzberger at a press conference after it publishes, explaining why.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED PRESS CONFERENCE)

SULZBERGER: These papers, I think in our editorial said this morning, where really a part of history that should have been made available considerably longer ago, and I just didn't feel there was any breach of national security, only it was sensed that we were giving secrets to the enemy.

FOLKENFLIK: President Nixon's administration went to war with newspapers, in effect, including the Washington Post and Boston Globe, which went and published the Pentagon Papers excerpts itself after The Times was enjoined. But the Supreme Court ultimately upheld Salzberger, The Times and the right of newspapers to publish things without being prevented by the government.

SIMON: David, did he change the financial footing of The Times?

FOLKENFLIK: Very much. He was part of the effort in the 1980s to make sure that the paper had a solidly national base, not simply focused on the greater New York area. And so, he connected with readers all over the country, and as a result, picked up advertisers seeking to reach them, helping The Times for the next couple of decades have a very strong financial base.

SIMON: NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik. Thanks so much.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.