Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. was the Publisher of The New York Times newspaper from 1992-2018, and Chairman of The New York Times Company, a conglomerate that owns the Times and many other media entities including the Boston Globe, from 1997-2020.
Sulzberger was born on September 22, 1951 in Mount Kisco, New York. His great-grandfather Adolph Ochs purchased the Times in 1896; his grandfather Arthur Hayes Sulzberger was Times Publisher from 1935 until 1961; and his father, known as “Punch” Sulzberger, became Publisher and company President in 1963.
Sulzberger’s parents divorced when he was five, and much of his childhood was spent living with wealthy relatives. As an adolescent he moved in with his father in Manhattan, grew his hair long, became immersed in the 1960s counter-culture, and was twice arrested in anti-Vietnam War demonstrations.
During this era, Punch Sulzberger asked his activist son: “If an American soldier runs into a North Vietnamese soldier, which would you like to see get shot?” “I would want to see the American get shot,” replied the young man. “It’s the other guy’s country.” (This statement ignores the fact that most of those fighting against Americans in then-South Vietnam were soldiers invading from another country, Communist North Vietnam.)
In 1970 Sulzberger completed high school. He then attended Tufts University and graduated in 1974 with a degree in political science. In 1974 he became a reporter for the Raleigh Times in North Carolina. In 1975 he wed and moved with his new bride to London, where both held wire-service jobs.
In 1978 the Sulzbergers relocated back to America. From 1978 until 1992 Sulzberger worked at a variety of jobs at the Times: Washington correspondent, city hall reporter, assistant metro editor, assignment editor, group manager of advertising, senior corporate planning analyst, production coordinator, assistant publisher, and deputy publisher.
In January 1992 Sulzberger became Times Publisher, replacing his father. A year later the young Sulzberger announced a ten-percent cut in the paper’s workforce, thereby earning his own enduring nickname, “Pinch.” That same year the company spent more than one billion dollars to buy the Boston Globe.
The differences between Pinch and his father Punch are large. “In fact there are today two Times — The Times as it was, and The Times as it has evolved in the hands of its current publisher since 1992,” wrote retired Boston Globe columnist David Warsh in 2003. “Under Sulzberger’s father, ‘Punch,’ a succession of editors … managed to keep the paper both balanced and enterprising. Fair play is harder than it looks. A newspaper has a responsibility to maintain the consensus, even as it seeks to change it…. [T]he Times managed to retain the respect of those whom it covered.”
“The new New York Times,” Warsh continued, “emphasizes the innovation part of the traditional recipe, and de-emphasizes balance…. Today its dominant overtones seem, at least to me, to have become strident, intemperate, even undignified…. ‘[E]dge’ and ‘attitude,’ those signature concepts of the ’90s, slowly have been gaining the upper hand.… And the memorable stories of recent years are those in which the newspaper threw its weight around…. [T]he Times‘ various campaigns have been startling … including the one waged since the last [i.e., 2000] election against George W. Bush.”
“And while the Times op-ed page possesses two of the most talented commentators in the business in Maureen Dowd and Paul Krugman,” wrote Warsh, “the failure of its editors to hold them to elementary standards of courtesy and fair play has created the impression that the paper no longer cares about the place it traditionally has occupied among newspapers.” “In all these matters,” concluded Warsh, “it is the publisher who ultimately sets the tone.”
Sulzberger launched a campaign to bring more racial, gender, gay and cultural diversity to the newspaper’s staff and pages, even as he reduced its diversity of ideas to those predominantly of the left. The Executive Editor at the time of Sulzberger’s takeover, Max Frankel, admitted (“with no apparent shame,” wrote National Review‘s Stanley Kurtz), that he had ceased hiring non-blacks and had “set up an unofficial little quota system.” If older white males felt alienated by his changes, said Sulzberger, that would merely prove that “we’re doing something right.”
In 1997 Sulzberger was elected to the Board of Directors of The New York Times Company, and that October he became its Chairman. Although this nominally-public company’s Class A stock is traded on the New York Stock Exchange, the company is ultimately commanded through preferred Class B “voting” stock — 91 percent of which is controlled by Sulzberger family members.
In the late 1990s, Sulzberger recognized that the Times was in decline, both because of more modern competitors such as USA TODAY and new technologies such as the Internet that were changing how people get news and commentary. He introduced color and more photographs to the traditionally black-and-white pages that had given the Times its nickname, “The Gray Lady.”
Sulzberger has aimed not only to restore The New York Times to its former supremacy atop American journalism, but also to expand its power into a worldwide news empire that rules from “multiple platforms” that include global cable television and the Internet. “Within our lifetimes,” Sulzberger said, “the distribution of news and information is going to shift to broadband.”
In 1996 Sulzberger put the Times on the Internet for people anywhere to read. He then did likewise with the Boston Globe. By 2004 the Times Company was operating 40 websites for its various newspapers and other enterprises, and was reaping from them annual net advertising profits of $17.3 million.
In 2002 Sulzberger bullied the Washington Post Company into selling for $65 million its 50-percent share of the International Herald Tribune (IHT), an international newspaper based in Paris. The Post had long shared IHT with the Times as a platform for their news stories, the other half of IHT being owned by The New York Times Company, of which Sulzberger is Board Chairman. If the Post did not sell, Sulzberger threatened, he would launch his own similar international newspaper to drive the Tribune out of business.
In 2002 Sulzberger struck a deal with the French newspaper LeMonde to insert an eight-page English-language Times supplement into each Saturday’s edition. He subsequently made similar deals with newspapers in Mexico, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Denmark, and India. As Stanley Kurtz reported, this is part of a long-term plan that Sulzberger and Times chief executive Russell Lewis developed to target “the political-cultural elite (what they call ‘the knowledge audience’) throughout the world.”
In 2003 Sulzberger led the New York Times Company to spend $100 million to purchase a 50-percent share of what had been the cable channel Discovery Civilization, which he promptly re-named the DiscoveryTimes Channel. This little-known seedling of its parent, The Discovery Channel, in October 2004 attracted an average of 27,000 prime-time viewers nationwide, making it among the least-watched channels on satellite and cable television. Sulzberger also invested heavily in television news production, creating documentaries aired by the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) programs Frontline and Nova.
In 2003 a serious personnel mistake made by Sulzberger caught up with him. Two years ealier, he had passed over then-Managing Editor Bill Keller to choose left-leaning Editorial Page Editor Howell Raines as the new Executive Editor to run the Times. Raines, in turn, gave preference and promotion to a young African American reporter named Jayson Blair, who, according to an investigation conducted by the newspaper, had published at least 36 stories that contained plagiarism, fabrications, or outright lies and falsehoods.
Sulzberger initially told a staff meeting that he would not accept Raines’ resignation over the plagiarism controversy. Three weeks later, however, he forced Raines to resign. Sulzberger then appointed outsider Daniel Okrent as temporary Public Editor to help restore the Times‘ damaged credibility, and elevated Bill Keller to Executive Editor.
The New York Times‘ reputation for solid, credible journalism, which had taken more than a century to build, was crumbling. A July 2003 Rasmussen survey found that 73 percent of Americans regarded their local newspaper as reliable and 72 percent saw Fox News as reliable, but a mere 46 percent regarded information reported in The New York Times as reliable and trustworthy.
At a 2003 meeting to reassure hundreds of troubled and irate Times staff members that everything was under control, Sulzberger suddenly displayed a stuffed toy moose. “He commented that unhappy Times employees should ‘talk to the moose,’ ‘deal with the moose,'” wrote one journalist, “and he also urged employees to ‘put their moose on the table.'” Sulzberger then handed the moose to Executive Editor Howell Raines, who put the stuffed toy aside next to his chair.
“You’re sitting in the room with giants in the business,” one Times reporter, appalled by Sulzberger’s toy moose, told New York Magazine. “It was mortifying.” “Its use struck some in the audience as a tone-deaf and patronizing gesture,” reported the New York Daily News. “It wasn’t just embarrassing,” wrote journalist John Ellis. “It was embarrassing and pathetic.”
For days thereafter, pundits pondered why the 52-year-old publisher had brought a toy moose to such a serious meeting. Eventually they discovered that Sulzberger is a huge fan of psychological motivation techniques. The moose is akin to the expression “the elephant in the room,” a big topic that people are reluctant to acknowledge or talk about.
“My father and his generation were defined by the Great Depression and World War II, and it created a very strong command-and-control culture,” Sulzberger has said. “My generation is defined more by revolutions…. We deal with the moose.”
In 2003 Sulzberger opposed critics who demanded that The New York Times relinquish a Pulitzer Prize which had been awarded in 1932 to Times Soviet Union correspondent Walter Duranty. Duranty’s reporting had covered up Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin‘s systematic starvation of millions of Ukrainian kulak farmers. The leftwing Duranty took favors from the Communist government, including a mistress, in exchange for concocting this pro-Soviet propaganda.
Sulzberger frequently sent his staffers on retreats like those of the motivational group “Outward Bound,” whose New York City chapter he once headed. Employees at these retreats were expected to improve teamwork through shared activities such as three-legged races, cake baking, and rock climbing.