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

Works discussed in this essay:

The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times, by Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones. Little, Brown;
870 pages.

On the evening of June 26, 1996, there was a rare public display of the American Establishment. The setting was the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the nation's pre-eminent bastion of high art. The occasion was a special anniversary for The New York Times, the nation's pre-eminent bastion of serious journalism. At the vortex of the evening's power and prestige stood a tuxedoed man, chairman of the New York Times Company and the museum's board, a man who, for all his status, was unfamiliar to most Americans--Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, known since childhood as "Punch."

Although few outsiders could have picked Punch Sulzberger from among the hundreds of politicians, society figures, business executives, and journalists at the Met that night, almost all would recognize the name of his newspaper. The party was a celebration of the day one century earlier when Punch's grandfather, Adolph Ochs, bought the floundering (and then-hyphenated) New-York Times and began the long, steady campaign to turn it into the best newspaper in the country. One hundred years later, the Times was the acknowledged leader of American journalism, and although it had become a billion-dollar operation, it was still a family paper, controlled by Punch Sulzberger and his sisters and cousins and their children.

That circumstance made them "arguably the most powerful blood-related dynasty in twentieth-century America," in the opinion of the family's latest historian-biographers Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones. In their big, admiring new book The Trust, which is certain to stand as the definitive work on the subject for a good long while, they provide ample evidence for their claim. In a smooth, well-paced narrative, they give a detailed account, including the family's many marital affairs, divorces, and jealousies.

Frustratingly, though, the authors settle for chronicling the family's history and do little by way of interpreting it. Even the central claim--that the Sulzbergers might be the country's most powerful family over the past century--is stated but never argued. There are obvious comparisons to be made to the Rockefellers or the Kennedys in the dynasty field, but the authors never get there. In the terminology of the newsroom, they fail to "back up the lead."

The authors seem not terribly curious about the questions raised by the newspaper's success. What is the nature of the Times's power? Where did it come from? Does it matter that the paper used to be conservative and is now liberal? If family ownership has been central to the Times's success in its first 100 years, does it follow that family control will provide a kind of strength and stability that conventional corporate ownership would not? Does it make sense for the newspaper to entrust its fate to 13 unaccountable millionaires who acquired their money and influence through birth? Such questions go unexamined in The Trust.

Even so, there is much to enjoy in this family and institutional tale, beginning with the dynastic founder, Adolph Ochs, the son of Jewish immigrants from Furth, Germany. The family settled in Tennessee, and Ochs rose to be publisher of the Chattanooga Times.

In 1896, Ochs became publisher of The New-York Times in a classic American way: by bluffing and by using other people's money. At the start, he committed the Times to a journalistic program of conservatism, thoroughness, and decency that provided the blueprint for its eventual success. His newspaper would not only carry "all the news that's fit to print" (the slogan was Ochs's own) but would "give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect or interests involved."

It was a long, slow climb to success. It's easy to be misled by the Times's recent greatness into thinking that it was always so. But in the early decades of the twentieth century, the Times was struggling. It was not the biggest newspaper in New York and certainly not the best written. (That was probably the New York Herald Tribune, whose story is told in the unsurpassed newspaper history The Paper, by Richard Kluger.) The Times was also quite conservative--both in its editorials and in its look.

As Ochs aged, the patriarch began to face up to the issue of succession. He and his wife had a single child, a daughter. Young Iphigene was certainly bright enough and even tried to disguise herself to get a job on the newspaper, but she was deemed ineligible to inherit the newspaper because of her gender.

She could, however, supply a successor by marrying one, and she found Arthur Hays Sulzberger, a businessman whose Jewish ancestors had settled in New York in the eighteenth century. With his arrival in the narrative, the authors of The Trust develop two of their major themes--the recurring crisis over finding a male family member to run the company and the sporadic significance of the family's Jewishness.

The succession issue supplies the book with an air of suspense that lasts right up to the final chapter. For most of the twentieth century, the Times and the Sulzbergers have been dealing with the transfer of power--fretting over it, speculating about it, handicapping it, and sometimes campaigning for it. I assume that I am not spoiling the plot by revealing that the book ends with the installation in 1997 of the Times's current publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr.--who, at age 48, can be expected to lead the Times for quite some time.

The authors also provide the most detailed explanation to date of the family's business arrangements. At the center is the legal trust that governs how the family manages its ownership. Revised several times, the Sulzberger trust now states that the power and money are held principally by the 13 cousins in Arthur, Jr.'s generation. As family members, they hold the bulk of the company's Class B voting stock, which allows them to control its board of directors. The rest of us can buy NYT stock (which recently traded near its 52-week high), but we can't fire the publisher.

The Jewish issue, which the family is quite conscious of but reticent about discussing, also gets its due in The Trust. Highly assimilated, the Ochs-Sulzberger clan nevertheless occupies a position of tremendous visibility and responsibility among American Jewry. Journalistically, the family's greatest sin occurred during the Holocaust, when the Times went so far to avoid pleading on behalf of Europe's Jewish population that in one of its wartime stories, it reported that Hitler had killed nearly 400,000 "Europeans," but did not use the word "Jew" until the seventh paragraph.

The authors keep a consistent focus on the family. Sometimes that focus sheds light on how decisions are really made at the top. But at other times, the approach has its drawbacks. We learn more, for example, about the Cohens and the Goldens and some other branches of the family than we need to. More seriously, the attention to the family makes this an uneven book as an institutional history of the Times. We learn about the paper's metropolitan coverage or its foreign reporting, for example, only when a family member takes a turn at it.

In assessing the performance of the Sulzbergers' newspaper, the authors frequently pull their punches. They are toughest on the Times in those areas where the newspaper has already admitted its faults--such as the Holocaust coverage, the decision to play ball with JFK over the Bay of Pigs (and thus enable the ensuing disaster), or the Times's late arrival in lifestyle coverage, where it trailed The Washington Post (for which, I should divulge, I served as a regional correspondent for eight years). But the authors are not inclined to criticize the paper on other matters, such as its failure to report on some of the early scandals of the Reagan era or its obsessive focus on Clinton's Whitewater affair.

Granted, the Times presents challenges to any author. One is the long shelf of books already written about the Times, by outsiders and insiders. Looming at one end of that shelf is the standard-setting Kingdom and the Power by Gay Talese, flanked by the memoirs of such Times authors as Scotty Reston, Russell Baker, and Max Frankel. It can be intimidating company.

Another problem stems from the fact that any book about the Times will certainly be read by journalists and reviewed by journalists. They are a tough crowd when it comes to a story with a happy ending. And at its heart, the story of the Times is a spectacular variant of the familiar tale of an immigrant family's rise to prominence. The teller of the tale can be more or less critical, but the basic trajectory of the story is already set along the lines of a conventional success story--precisely the kind of story that journalists are trained to doubt and dislike.

The authors must surely have known that. Tifft and Jones are former journalists--she with Time magazine and he with the Times itself, where he covered the news industry and won a Pulitzer Prize. Earlier, they collaborated on a big history of another journalistic dynasty--the Binghams of Louisville. Husband and wife, they somehow share a chair in journalism at Duke University, in Durham, North Carolina, while living in New York City.

For this book, they certainly did their homework. In a "Note on Sources," Tifft and Jones state that most of their material came from interviews with members of the Ochs-Sulzberger clan. In seven years of talking, they say they had "the same relationship any New York Times reporter would have with a cooperative subject: we had access, but with complete independence and no advance review of our work."

That access is one of the book's many virtues, but it also has a downside. Consider their handling of "Punch" Sulzberger, who ran the paper from 1963 to 1997. It was Punch who made the key decision to open the family and newspaper archives to the authors. But even more astute was his decision to follow the old wisdom: If they're going to write it anyway, you might as well talk to them. In this case, the authors often tell us what Punch was thinking, feeling, or planning in a way that could only have come from him. Not coincidentally, Punch gradually emerges as the hero--the businessman with unerring judgment, the publisher with the noblest of journalistic instincts, the dutiful son, and the conscientious legatee. By the end of the book, he looms even larger than the founder, and he dwarfs Arthur, Jr.

The authors routinely refer to Punch as "powerful" or "influential," yet they spend little time discussing the nature of that power. As publisher, chairman, and CEO, Punch was selected by a self-perpetuating, private, secretive body. His length of term was indeterminate, and the grounds and method of his removal were ambiguous. This is true of many big businesses, but what is interesting about the Times is that it has a "public trust" role that normal, profit-maximizing companies don't have. We all have more of a stake in what The New York Times does than in what a potato chip manufacturer does.

During Punch's 34-year tenure, there were eight different presidents of the United States, from Kennedy to Clinton, as well as hundreds of members of the House and Senate who came and went. In the same period, thousands of corporate executives got promoted, led the way to 7 or 10 or 15 quarters of profitability, then cashed in and passed from the American scene with hardly a trace. Not so with the publishers of The New York Times--for one thing, they tend to stay in power a long time. In theory, at least, Arthur, Jr., could run the paper into the 2030s.

On the other hand, there are many limits on the publisher's power. Journalistically, the position is almost papal, in the sense that the best its holder can hope to do is to keep the institution going. It's also a situation where you can prepare yourself for the calling, but it's considered unseemly to campaign for it.

The head of the Times does not have the power to shake things up very much. The real change agents in American journalism are usually people like the self-titled SOB Allen Neuharth of Gannett, the founder of USA TODAY, who are not even trying to uphold the standards embraced by the Times. Or alternatively, change is made by outsiders like Ted Turner, who created CNN and, with it, the 24-hour news cycle.

Because of the responsibility the Sulzberger family feels to maintain journalism's highest standards, the head of the Times is not even free to make as much money as possible. In this way, the position is different from that of heads of other media operations, where the founding family has given way to outside directors and has sold its stock to the public. On the opposite coast, The Los Angeles Times provides a cautionary tale: When the Chandler family dropped its active running of the paper, they turned to the cereal maker Mark Willes from General Mills, whose only prior involvement with the newspaper business was as a reader. In search of profit, Willes forced The Los Angeles Times's newsroom to play ball with the newspaper's business office, which resulted recently in an embarrassing joint venture with a local arena--precisely the kind of thing the Sulzbergers are raised to avoid.

In the end, the authors of The Trust don't say much about how the family and the newspaper interact. By way of summation, they offer this weak, celebratory comment: "[O]ver the course of more than a century, the magic and mission of The New York Times had somehow managed to last, in large part because of the ownership and guidance of one quite ordinary and quite remarkable family."

I trust that such a puffball could not get past the Times's own editors, and I hope it stays that way--for whatever reason.

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