Jan 1 2000

The Family Behind the Times

Powerful but no longer private

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

By Susan E. Tifft and Alex Jones (Little Brown)

On one memorable evening at the New York Times in mid-20th Century, a newly hired Hungarian charmer cried across the city room, “Darling, zay are changing my story!” When the echo reached the publisher of the New York Herald-Tribune, he garrumphed, “Drink is the curse of the Herald-Tribune, and sex is the curse of the New York Times.” We who toiled for the Good Gray Lady cherished that tale, implying that she was not as prissy as she looked.

Little did we know. There was gossip downstairs about our publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, escorting actresses and prostitutes up the back elevator, but nobody told us that he required his wife, the sainted Iphigene, to tolerate them as house guests. I never heard that Adolph Ochs, the patriarch, had a habit of squeezing women visitors against the wall at the Times, or that he chased a nephew’s bride around his apartment in her nightie.

Hardly news that Adolph would consider fit to print, yet these and many other unflattering disclosures pepper an authorized and reverent history of his clan, The Trust: The Powerful and Private Family Behind the New York Times, by Susan E. Tifft and Alex Jones (Little Brown). Actually, Punch Sulzberger, the Dan Quayle of the family who flabbergasted us all by inheriting the throne, had sensibly rejected the project, but the authors say they persuaded him to relent by assuring him they would not be salacious. Nor were they. Jones, who won a Pulitzer covering the media for the Times, is very much a Times man. What might emerge as a Peyton Place in other hands is treated here with detachment, noted chiefly for its bearing on the succession.

For example, we are told laconically that Punch’s first marriage came apart when he returned early one day to his Paris apartment and found his wife with Don Cook of the Herald-Tribune. Punch was then serving an apprenticeship as a reporter, a hitch famous in our lore for his neglecting to call in after seeing a racing car mow down 83 spectators. His divorce and remarriage coincided with an unrelated paternity suit, which the Family settled. We are filled in on multiple couplings, liaisons and breakups among his sisters and cousins, mostly as they bore on whose Ochs was being gored in the internecine strivings that make up much of this book, ending with the strident objections of Punch’s second wife to the ascent of her stepson, Arthur Jr.

We are also advised of problems in the clan with alcohol and drugs and manic depression, an ailment that laid Adolph low for extended periods. The authors tell us the Family was seriously afflicted with dyslexia, thus accounting for a remarkable rate of failure in private schools and mediocre grades through college; they suggest that Punch had trouble reading long articles in the Times when he became publisher. Indeed, the only member of the extended Family to show unquestionable talent was John Oakes, whom Punch fired as editor of the editorial page because of his liberalism. The record may, however, reflect unfairly on the women, who never had a chance. Until the present fourth generation at least, their menfolk were, to put it bluntly, sexist pigs. And racist, too.

When Jeanette Rankin, the first woman to be elected to Congress, voted against going to war in 1917, a New York Times editorial called it “final proof of feminine incapacity for straight thinking.” When the troops came home and race violence broke out, the Times mourned for the prewar days when most blacks “admitted the superiority of the white race and troubles between the two races were unheard of.”

Fond as Adolph was of his only child, Iphigene, he was furious when she tried behind his back to wangle a job at the paper. Hers is a moving story, which evokes that of Eleanor Roosevelt. She had returned from college a liberal and a feminist; late in life, she said she’d always been a bit of a socialist. But there was no question of her pursuing a career other than producing a male heir. Her first three tries were girls, and the fourth, Punch, turned out to be conspicuously unsuitable, so rivalry for the succession seethed. Adolph left control of the Trust to Iphigene, but she obediently left management to her husband, then to their dim son-in-law, Orvil Dryfoos, and finally, when Orvil died suddenly, she overrode general opposition and enthroned Punch. (He does not emerge here as excessively grateful. On the day of Iphigene’s funeral and cremation, an Ash Wednesday, Punch noticed a smudge on the forehead of a Times staffer and jested, “Oh, dear! I hope that isn’t Mother!”)

Iphigene’s loyalty to the Family, her kindness to its many wounded birds, and her discretion were legendary. So it was a revelation to learn here about a taped message that she caused to be read at a stag dinner celebrating her husband’s 20th anniversary as publisher. “Dear Arthur,” she said, “Once more, you must admit, I am right. If this were not a man’s world, as I’ve always insisted it is, I would not be left out in the cold tonight. If I’d been the boss’s son instead of his daughter, this party might have been for me instead of you.” Then, disappointingly and I think erroneously, she adds that she would have been a disastrously inferior publisher. “All I want is to be your wife, even when I’m left at home.”

There is in fact scant evidence of superior management by the male side. On the contrary, the menfolk failed against the odds in their home town, Chattanooga, and in efforts to publish editions of the New York Times in Paris (twice) and Los Angeles. They blew countless millions on badly planned printing plants and on a facsimile system of transmission, long before the Wall Street Journal and Gannett showed them how to print at long distance. They provoked long and costly strikes, which in the end were settled on terms they should have negotiated at the start. They so botched a venture into book publishing as to lose control of the Times Books rubric.

It may properly be argued that they must have done some things right, but even these tend to lose luster on examination. For example, Adolph’s “stroke of genius” in cutting the newsstand price to a penny, said to have saved the paper at the start, turns out to have been a desperate move to finesse exposure of his padding of circulation figures. And while those strikes waged by Orvil and Punch temporarily cut the Times’ profits, they also sped the demise of the other three broadsheet dailies in New York, leaving the Times in an impregnable position—which renders absurd an often repeated myth that editor A.M. Rosenthal then saved the Times by introducing those special sections. In fact, the paper was never in danger, and the sections were imposed on a reluctant Rosenthal by the publisher, who presumably got the idea from similar formats in the Washington Post and the Miami Herald. All of which raises the question: How did such a family build the most influential newspaper in the world?

The answer, I firmly believe, lies in the oath published by Adolph Ochs in 1896 in his first issue of the New York Times: “to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect or interests involved.”

Not that he meant a word of it—-as Tifft and Jones show when they tackle another mystery: How did Ochs, a virtual bankrupt from Chattanooga, persuade Wall Street to set him up with the moribund New York Times? Answer: The financiers were anxious to keep the paper alive as a Democratic voice against the populist Democratic candidate for president, William Jennings Bryan, who was stirring the masses with that speech about the Cross of Gold. Ochs bought a fine new suit, set up a fake bank account as reference, and persuaded J.P. Morgan and others to bankroll the purchase. His paper promptly pilloried Bryan, and Ochs marched with his staff in a businessmen’s parade against him. In 1905, he let a financier, who had been exposed by the World as a crook, draft a Times editorial in rebuttal; at the time, the financier held a controlling bloc of Times stock in escrow. (Ochs appears to have paid his way out of hock in 1916, though details remain cloudy because he had records destroyed, apparently in fear of a tax audit.)

And yet. Ochs’ noble vow defined the image of the New York Times forever after, even for those who honored it in the breach. Which made for extraordinary paradoxes. We are told that Scotty Reston crowed for years, as well he might, about how young Punch rebuffed President Kennedy’s request that he pull David Halberstam out of Vietnam. Yet Reston himself had at Kennedy’s request toned down Times coverage of the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis.

Punch’s grandfather, Adolph, wasn’t surprised by the Teapot Dome oil scandal; he’d sat on the story to avoid embarrassing the Harding administration. Punch’s father, Arthur, let the CIA park agents in an undetermined number of Times bureaus, and at its bidding pulled a Times reporter out of Guatemala on the eve of a coup that in the end cost countless lives. (Cousin Cyrus Sulzberger was a willing asset of the CIA, code name Fidelis.) Punch himself, on one notable occasion, challenged Cousin John Oakes to say whether he’d take an editorial stand that would damage the Times’ interest simply because it was in the public interest—and blew his stack when Oakes said yes. Without fear or favor, regardless of interests involved, indeed.

And yet, Punch and his news staff rose splendidly to the challenge of the Pentagon Papers, the secret history of the Vietnam war. It was an exploit that honored all of journalism, but it needs to be put in perspective. It had little effect on the course of the war, except that it led Nixon to Watergate—and the Times blew that story. Tifft and Jones overlook one widely alleged reason: Bureau chief Max Frankel had been assured by his tennis partner Henry Kissinger that the White House was not involved.

The Times’ coverage of the Indochina war, as indeed all of its news coverage, may be viewed as a battleground. On the one hand (to employ a favorite Times usage), a handful of reporters did noble work; on the other hand, editors reined them in, toned down coverage of the peace movement, passed up chances to break the news of the My Lai massacre, and followed the basic administration line on peace terms to the bitter end. I reserve my modest witness to these events for another occasion, but note that, far from challenging the fictitious Gulf of Tonkin incident that led to our virtual declaration of war in 1964, Reston was then advising Lyndon Johnson on how it would play. The Times eventually reported the truth, tragic years later.

It usually tries. Every day it carries distressing reports about the results of policies it supported or ignored when they were going down. A random example: The Times savaged New York’s Mayor David Dinkins for granting a cost-of-living catch-up to teachers, and lauded his successor, Rudolph Giuliani, for freezing their pay. As I write this (11/16/99), a front-page story describes as a crisis the exodus of qualified teachers from the mean city to the better-paying suburbs. Now they tell us. . . .

The Times succeeded because advertisers valued its readership, and because readers respected its explicit commitment to integrity and its implicit role as the voice of the establishment. Especially in times of crisis, they were reassured by its heft and its sobriety: “All the News That’s Fit to Print” . . . “the newspaper of record” . . . the long gray columns, unrelieved by comics or even, while Ochs lived, by crossword puzzles.

In turn, other media came to accept the New York Times as the voice of authority. Newspaper editors all over the country took daily guidance from an AP advisory on how the Times was playing the news on Page 1. Broadcast news desks relied on it as a desk handbook on complex issues of policy. When Kennedy was reminded that the buildup for the Bay of Pigs invasion had previously been reported by The Nation, he retorted, “But it was not news until it appeared in the Times.”

So it became the most powerful newspaper in the world. But despite the persistent conceit shared by Tifft and Jones, it never was “the greatest newspaper in the world,” or even a great newspaper. Leaving aside the foreign press, the Herald-Tribune and others were far better written, the World-Telegram and the New York Post covered the city more thoroughly and with less fear or favor, the Wall Street Journal was light-years better and bolder on business news, the Washington Post covered the capital better, and individual reporters on various publications would frequently beat our socks off. The Times’ journalism is forever making up in quantity what it lacks in quality.

Quality is there, to be sure, and it is visible every morning, like raisins in oatmeal, though one should examine each one before swallowing. Some of those Pulitzer awards were deserved, some were appalling. Talent is constantly attracted by the New York Times’ aura, its clout and its money, but to sustain individuality and idealism in that mill of mediocrity is exhausting. (I think of the great Homer Bigart, at the desk next to mine, growling, “I never knew newspapering could be dull till I came to the Times.”) Some of the best escaped to other battlefields, some were forced out, some adapted. A Darwinian selection favors the survival of people who see the world as the Family does.

Jones, for example. Asked on a book show which of the Family they most admired, he and Tifft promptly named Ochs and Punch. Only after prodding did Tifft think to mention that Iphigene, who had held the Family together, was nice, too. If there is a villain in their book, it is Bert Powers of the printers’ union. Tifft and Jones wholly agree with management that the Times had to become a media conglomerate to obtain the resources to smash the unions. In the end, Powers saved his members’ jobs for life; Tifft and Jones are shocked that some now draw money from the Times without producing anything. It never occurred to them that that could be said of most of the Family.

Having previously recorded the breakup of the Bingham dynasty, which ruled the Louisville Courier, the authors are convinced that family control is a sine qua non of journalistic virtue, and they end with the triumphant assurance that it will survive for another generation or two. Ironically, the publication of their book coincided with the ouster by the Times of the family that long ran the Boston Globe. But their thesis is questionable in the abstract and in the particular. Consider the standards of Hearst, McCormick, Chandler, Newhouse, Annenberg, Pulliam and a host of other dynasts.

Consider also the history of the Times under the Family. The Newspaper of Record recorded a century of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind, generally as a faithful voice of the Eastern establishment. It supported all its wars, hot and cold. It supported witchhunts during and after World War I and temporized with the one after World War II; it fudged the menace of Hitlerism and played down the Holocaust. (Tifft and Jones are interesting on the uneasy relationship of this very American Family with its Jewishness.)

At the cutting edge of major events, it could be found against women’s suffrage, against unionism (always), against minimum wages and national health insurance. In its New York base, it backed Robert Moses and his bulldozers against Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs. Like the rest of the business establishment, it preferred corrupt politicians to liberal reformers; in the last mayoral election, it conceded that the Republican Giuliani was “ethically challenged” and racially “insensitive” as it endorsed him against an ethically unchallenged and racially sensitive female Democrat.

It should be noted that the new generation, as represented by Arthur Jr., has been exemplary on women and gays (though one might find troubling his agreement with his wife that she should end her independent career in journalism). He has also moved the editorial page from center-right to center. But the right retains strong positions on the paper, established during the reign of Rosenthal as executive editor. One of his successors, Joe Lelyveld, is quoted here, “Abe would always say, with some justice, that you have to keep your hand on the tiller and steer to the right or it’ll drift off to the left.”

So that’s about where the New York Timesstands at Y2K. Like all the media, it is in a period of extraordinary turbulence, and great changes no doubt lie ahead. Whether the Family actually will prove able to keep control remains to be seen. Does it matter? Stay tuned.