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Ex-N.Y. Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger dies
“As an editor, you knew that if you went to the publisher and sought his support on an issue that you deemed to be of high importance, you could pretty much count on getting it. He knew how to back his people,” Lelyveld said. “The last years have been extremely difficult with his health problems. He bore them with great courage. I admired him hugely.”
Significant free-press and free-speech precedents were established during Sulzberger’s years as publisher, most notably the Times vs. Sullivan case. It resulted in a landmark 1964 Supreme Court ruling that shielded the press from libel lawsuits by public officials unless they could prove actual malice.
In 1971 the Times led the First Amendment fight to keep the government from suppressing the Pentagon Papers, a series of classified reports on the Vietnam War. Asked by a reporter who at the Times made the decision to publish the papers, Sulzberger gestured toward his chest and silently mouthed, “me.”
Sulzberger read the more than 7,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers before deciding to publish them. After Sulzberger read the papers, he was asked what he thought. “Oh, I would think about 20 years to life,” he responded.
But in a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court eventually sided with the Times and The Washington Post, which had begun publishing the papers a few days after the Times.
“Punch Sulzberger was a giant in the industry, a leader who fought to preserve the vital role of a free press in society and championed journalism executed at the highest level,” said Associated Press President and CEO Gary Pruitt. “The Associated Press benefited from his wisdom, both during his years on the board of directors and his thoughtful engagement in the years that followed.”
Gay Talese, who worked at the Times as a reporter when Sulzberger took over and chronicled the paper’s history in his book “The Kingdom and the Power,” called him “a brilliant publisher. He far exceeded the achievements of his father in both making the paper better and more profitable at a time when papers are not as good as they used to be.”
In an interview in 1990 with New York magazine, Sulzberger was typically candid about the paper’s readership.
“We’re not New York’s hometown newspaper,” he said. “We’re read on Park Avenue, but we don’t do well in Chinatown or the east Bronx. We have to approach journalism differently than, say, the Sarasota Herald Tribune, where you try to blanket the community.”
New York City’s mayor from 1978 to 1989, Ed Koch, said Sulzberger also had great humility, despite his extraordinary influence.
“With enormous power and authority he was a humble a person as you could ever meet,” Koch said Saturday. “People with enormous power often dominate a room. He did not. And yet the power and authority was there.”
In the mid-1980s Sulzberger authorized the building of a $450 million color printing and distribution plant across the Hudson River in Edison, N.J., part of a plan to get all printing out of cramped facilities in the Times building in Manhattan.
Sulzberger was born in New York City on Feb. 5, 1926, the only son of Arthur HaysSulzberger and his wife, Iphigene Ochs Sulzberger, Adolph’s only child. One of his three sisters was named Judy, and from early on he was known as “Punch,” from the puppet characters Punch and Judy.
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