Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the fourth publisher of the New York Times, who made history with his decision to publish the Pentagon Papers and revived the “Good Gray Lady” of print journalism with a radical redesign that set a new standard for newspapers in the last quarter of the 20th century, has died. He was 86.
Sulzberger died Saturday at his home in Southampton, N.Y., after a long illness, according to the New York Times.
Widely known by the nickname Punch, Sulzberger was publisher of the Times from 1963 to 1992 and chairman and chief executive of the parent company from 1973 to 1997. He passed his titles on to his son, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., the fourth generation of his family to head the paper.
Sulzberger, at 37, became the youngest publisher in the newspaper’s history, but he quickly proved himself capable of decisive leadership. Just months into his tenure, he stood up to President John F. Kennedy’s criticism of the Times’ Saigon correspondent, David Halberstam, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Vietnam War. Less than a decade later, Sulzberger defied President Richard Nixon when he approved the publication of the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret history of the war.
Sulzberger’s decision to publish the papers – “the most extraordinary leak of classified documents in the history of governments,” according to historian William Manchester – sparked a U.S. Supreme Court battle over freedom of the press, which the Times won. It also unleashed paranoia in the Nixon White House, which set in motion an incredible series of events – the Watergate break-in by administration-backed operatives and a cover-up at the highest levels of government – that culminated in the president’s resignation in 1974.
What moved Sulzberger to put himself and the Times in jeopardy was a bedrock belief in the newspaper as a guardian of public interests.
“He decided, even at great risk to his newspaper and his family’s legacy, that the responsibility to the public came first,” said Alex S. Jones, a former New York Times reporter and co-author with Susan E. Tifft of “The Trust,” a 1999 history of the Times.
The Pentagon Papers were the defining moment of three decades of transformation at the Times under Sulzberger.
He modernized operations by automating production, unified the Sunday and daily news operations under one editor and spearheaded a revamping that divided the paper into four brightly written sections.
Sulzberger was married three times. With his first wife, Barbara Grant, he had two children, Arthur Ochs Jr. and Karen Alden. With his second wife, Carol Furman, he had a daughter, Cynthia; he also adopted Furman’s daughter from a previous marriage, Cathy Jean. Carol Sulzberger died in 1995.
Sulzberger’s third wife, longtime Spokane civic leader Allison Stacey Cowles, died in 2010. He had known Allison Cowles, widow of former Spokesman-Review publisher William H. Cowles 3rd and matriarch of the Cowles media company, for years through their families’ shared interests in the newspaper publishing industry.
“He was not just a titan of the news business, but also a very funny and thoughtful man who cared deeply for his family and friends,” said Allison Cowles’ son Stacey Cowles, publisher of the Spokesman-Review. “He connected with all of us because he listened and brought wry humor to every situation.”
“No question, he was fiercely dedicated to the freedom of the press and the business of news. But mostly, we’ll miss his jokes and his indomitable spirit,” Cowles added.