January 2nd, 2018

Change and history: the Times gets a new publisher

NY Times publisher Arthur Ochs (“Pinch”) Sulzberger Jr. (66) has retired, to be replaced by his son A.G. Sulzberger (37) as of January first. The change was announced last month. A.G. represents the fifth generation of the family to run the Times since patriarch Adolph Ochs bought the paper in 1896.

Donald Trump welcomed the new Times head this way:

Can’t say I disagree with him.

It also happens that I drafted a post a week or two ago on the subject of the history of the Times. So here it is, with a few additions.

We often talk about how opinion and fact journalism have increasingly merged in the last half-century. That’s a change, one I wrote about at length in my two-part series on Walter Cronkite.

But it’s also important to note that opinion journalism itself has changed, too. For example, not that long ago William Safire used to write for the NY Times, not as its resident token “conservative” who is not really conservative (a la Ross Douthat or Bret Stephens), but as a highly respected long-time (and by “long-time” I mean looooong time; Safire started his column in 1973 and left in 2005) mainstream columnist. He was pretty middle-of-the-road moderate Republican for the most part. In addition, I can’t think of any opinion columnist in the Times of that day who exhibited anything like the left-leaning extremes of Paul Krugman or Frank Rich, for example (Walter Duranty was somewhat of an anomaly at the time, and anyway he wasn’t a columnist).

The Times actually started out as a Republican paper but turned Democratic during the last quarter of the 19th Century. In the partisan atmosphere of papers of the time, Adolph Ochs (whom Trump references in his tweet, and who acquired the Times in 1896) decided that a good and rather unique niche to carve out would be that of objectivity. And for the most part, with some exceptions, the paper was fairly objective (at least, compared to today), although always strongly and consistently liberal Democratic.

Prior to Pinch’s coming to power there was his father (“Punch”), who published the paper from 1963 to 1990, when Pinch took over. Under Punch, Abe Rosenthal was executive editor from 1977-1988. Glenn Reynolds wrote about Rosenthal (and about the Times’ history in general) in an excellent 2011 book review, and when you read the following quote from Reynold’s piece you’ll see how far the Times has strayed from Rosenthal’s days:

As [Gray Lady Down author] McGowan makes clear, maintaining this [objective] position took constant effort. Abe Rosenthal, who ran the paper from 1977 through 1986 (and whom McGowan regards as the Times’ best editor), warned that because of the staff’s overwhelmingly liberal political leanings, “you have to keep your hand on the tiller and steer to the right, or it’ll drift off to the left.” Rosenthal was also particularly concerned about keeping political opinions out of the culture sections and news reports — under his supervision, there were to be no “editorial needles.”

That’s exactly and precisely what’s missing today. Oh, I have little doubt that today’s fact and opinion journalists at the Time are aware that they are overwhelming liberal—how could they not be? But the idea of steering to the right would be anathema, and why would they want to avoid drifting to the left? They are there to speak truth to power, to question authority, to stop people like Donald Trump and to march in the footsteps of Woodward and Bernstein.

Rosenthal certainly made some decisions that most people on the right would consider partisan in the sense of leaning left. But, still, it was better than it later became, paticularly in terms of those “needles.” Here’s another Rosenthal quote:

He once told a reporter who demanded to exercise his rights by marching in a street demonstration he was assigned to cover: “OK, the rule is, you can [make love to] an elephant if you want to, but if you do you can’t cover the circus.” We call that “the Rosenthal rule.”

(I’m going to assume that “[make love to]” stands in for the F-word there.)

When Punch was replaced by Pinch in 1992, that’s when a bigger change in the paper’s editorial stance occurred:

Unlike his father, Arthur Ochs “Punch” Sulzberger Sr., Pinch was less concerned with balancing either the coverage or the books, and instead began to run the Times as a sort of upscale Village Voice: not a great news organization that tried to tell the truth as accurately as possible, but a snarky in-group publication that told its increasingly homogeneous audience things it wanted to hear. The difference between generations is summed up neatly in this anecdote:

“Walking across Boston Common one day discussing the war, Punch asked Arthur Jr. which he would like to see get shot if an American soldier came across a North Vietnamese soldier in battle. Arthur Jr. defiantly answered that he would like the American to get shot because it was the other guy’s country. For Punch, the remark bordered on treason, and the two began shouting. Sulzberger Jr. later said that his father’s inquiry was the dumbest question he had ever heard in his life.”

That probably gives you all the information you need to know about Pinch, but I’ll add a bit more:

Fast-forward a few years and Pinch, now firmly ensconced — despite resistance from the board of directors — as publisher, cancels [Abe] Rosenthal’s op-ed column, leaving Rosenthal feeling “betrayed and heartbroken.” Pinch wanted something new at the Times, and he got it, something that avoided the dumb questions of his father’s generation.

Pinch wanted edge, something with a New Leftish angle, and, above all, diversity. He told critics that if the Times was alienating older white-male readers, then “we’re doing something right.” He hired Howell Raines as editorial-page editor, a man suffering, McGowan writes, from “a lifelong sense of Southern guilt” and “a simplistic, perhaps even Manichean political vision.”

Raines wasn’t interested in nuance, and under his direction, the Times editorial pages became a vehicle for preaching more than for converting. Meanwhile, Pinch was allowing politics to seep into first culture, and then news coverage, all while pushing ever-greater efforts at “diversity” hiring onto the paper’s news divisions.

Now almost all the Times reporters and opinion writers are f-ing elephants and covering the circus, and it’s considered great.

I wanted to know something about A.G., and so I took a look at this recent interview with him in the Times-friendly New Yorker. One statement I found to be of special interest was this:

I’ve always had a theory that decent journalists are contrarians by nature, because they have to ask tough questions of people…And, like any decent journalist, I have a contrarian streak, and I actually spent most of my life not thinking I would go into journalism.

That strikes me as almost humorously youthful, because A.G. then goes on to say that he decided to go into journalism shortly after college (Brown). Since’s he’s now 37 and has been in journalism his entire adult life, that means that when he says “most of my life” he’s talking about childhood and his teen years.

Another interesting statement by A.G.—one that’s less personal—is the following:

One thing I’d say about the subscription model that we didn’t expect, which was an unintended benefit of this strategic shift we made, is that everyone in the New York Times today wakes up thinking how can we serve our readers. That’s aligned our journalistic mission and all of our business incentives in a really clean and consistent way.

Earlier in the interview A.G. had said that, with falling advertising revenue in the media, the paper now relies for 2/3 of its money on reader subscriptions. It used to be that their revenues were 80% from advertising. That’s a big big change, and the way I read the above quote is that the Times has to feed its liberal/left readers more and more red meat.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? If the paper pulled more to the middle, those revenue-generating subscribers would drop the Times like a hot potato.

A.G. doesn’t think the paper is liberal. As a frequent reader—and analyzer—of Times coverage (as well as a long-time critic of A.G.’s interviewer, New Yorker editor David Remnick), I’d probably have found the following exchange between Remnick and A.G. amusing if I didn’t see it as dangerous:

D.R.: For many in the general public, the New York Times is seen as a liberal newspaper. True or false?

A.G.S.: False. And I can send you all the hate mail that I’ve gotten from our aggressive coverage of the Clinton campaign.

D.R.: O.K., but do you really think that it’s possible to argue that the New York Times, by and large, isn’t both populated by people who are left of center, and that the tone of the newspaper isn’t left of center?

A.G.S.: We’re committed to a really old-fashioned notion. It’s a notion that isn’t too popular these days, which is reporting the news “without fear or favor.” Those are words that my great-great-grandfather, Adolph Ochs, wrote in our initial mission statement. What that means to me is reporting on the world aggressively, searching for the truth wherever it leads, and not putting our thumb on the scale. I really deeply admire my colleagues’ commitment to that. We strive to understand every side of the story, and to convey it fairly.

D.R.: Do you believe in the notion of objectivity?

A.G.S.: I do believe in the notion of objectivity. I think it’s something you have to work at; I think it’s something that we don’t always get right.

D.R.: I have a hard time with the notion of objectivity. Objectivity, to me, sounds to me like what you do in a science lab. Fairness is another matter. I struggle with that—the notion of objectivity. You think it’s possible to accommodate it?

A.G.S.: You know, I think fairness is a word that comes pretty close to me, too, if you want to call it fairness. The point is the discipline of trying to strip away your own biases—whether they come from a worldview or lived experience—and to try to tell a story in a way that’s fair to all the participants in it.

Why did I call that exchange “dangerous”? Both men hold a lot of power through their publications. You may scoff at both the Times and the New Yorker, but they are both still highly influential with a huge number of people whose minds and viewpoints are both shaped by them and reinforced by them. Either A.G. and Remnick actually believe they are objective/fair, or they are lying about it. Fools or knaves, or fools/knaves. As usual, take your pick.

And if the Times actually does become fair and/or objective under A.G., I’ll be happy to say I was wrong.

17 Responses to “Change and history: the Times gets a new publisher”

  1. j e Says:

    I first began questioning the truthfulness of the Grey Lady during its egregiously misleading coverage of the Duke Lacrosse incident, and my opinion of its value has continued to plummet, to the point at which I consider it no more reliable than Pravda on the Potomac.

  2. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    Ideological certainty allows the fool to justify acting as a knave.

  3. Gringo Says:

    NY Times publisher Arthur Ochs (“Pinch”) Sulzberger Jr. (66) has retired, to be replaced by his son A.G. Sulzberger (37) as of January first.

    IMHO, it would be difficult to find someone worse than Pinch. I fear I may be proven wrong.

  4. Philip Says:

    “Punch” and “Pinch” – what is this, a cartoon? Who’s next in line, “Paunch”?

  5. mhj Says:

    I agree, that exchange between AGS and Remnick is scary. They either lie or are clueless.

    I also agree with your point that the subscription model and the leftist tilt of the Times’ home market almost guarantee a very strong left tilt. It is up to the rest of the world to recognize that the NYT (and the New Yorker) are no longer reliable guides to reality or what is newsworthy, they are just 2 more left-wing publications catering to a left-wing readership–

    The rest of the media has not yet figured this out, but eventually it will.

  6. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    “It is up to the rest of the world to recognize that the NYT (and the New Yorker) are no longer reliable guides to reality or what is newsworthy, they are just 2 more left-wing publications catering to a left-wing readership–”

    Might it not also be up to the rest of the world to recognize that the NYT and other left-wing publications are simply reflective of their left-wing readership’s inability to recognize reality?

    Is not the inability to accept reality evidence of a profound mental dysfunction?

  7. n.n Says:

    The NYT had motive, opportunity, and four trimesters. Trump is viable and evolving.

  8. parker Says:

    The NYT stopped being all that’s fit to print doing Reagan.

  9. AesopFan Says:

    The exchange between Sulzberger and Remnick reminded me of a similar one in the book by Bernard Goldberg: “Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News.” (should be required reading to understand the rise of last year’s truly demented Fake News)

    (quoting from memory)
    Goldberg once asked Dan Rather (in the pre-Bush-Memo days) how he would characterize some media outlets ideologically, and when they got to the New York Times, Rather said emphatically, “Middle-of-the-road, Bernie; middle-of-the-road.”
    Just as clueless as AGS and DR appear to be.
    But where once they were simply fools, now it is impossible not to conclude they are knaves.

  10. Barry Meislin Says:

    Iran is still not on the front page of the international edition.

    A seamless transition, folks…

    (But then who would have expected anything less?)

  11. FOAF Says:

    I went to high school with Pinch. But it was only for a year because he flunked out. He was a moron and a loser. I was pretty much a dweeb in high school myself but I can remember thinking, “How did a high-powered family like that produce such a non-entity?” If he hadn’t inherited his job he wouldn’t have gotten as far in journalism as Jimmy Olsen.

  12. Ray Says:

    You have to love that diversity at the NYT. Remember Jason Blair? The editors knew he was lying but they kept him on the payroll because he was black.

  13. Gringo Says:

    FOAF
    I went to high school with Pinch. But it was only for a year because he flunked out. He was a moron and a loser.

    When a member of the upper classes goes to an Ivy League cover school such as Tufts, instead of an Ivy league school, that’s a pretty good indication he isn’t a member of the upper echelon- mentally speaking. When Mom and Dad can strongly imply to an Ivy League school that admitting Junior will lead to a healthy addition to the school’s endowment, and the school still doesn’t admit, Junior must truly be lacking something upstairs. ( I am not saying that his parents suggested a contribution in exchange for admission. Rather, the schools can do the math: admit a rich dummy, and the odds are pretty good that Mom and Dad will fork over some money for the endowment. )

    Pinch still has the point of view of a college student of his era. I am reminded of Talleyrand’s crack about the Bourbons: they forget nothing, they learn nothing.

  14. AesopFan Says:

    Gringo Says:
    January 3rd, 2018 at 1:36 pm
    ..

    Pinch still has the point of view of a college student of his era.
    * * *
    I believe I’ve seen that said of another prominent Democrat with questionable academic credentials.

  15. parker Says:

    Yawn.

  16. John Says:

    FOAF Says:
    January 3rd, 2018 at 4:18 am

    I went to high school with Pinch. But it was only for a year because he flunked out. He was a moron and a loser. I was pretty much a dweeb in high school myself but I can remember thinking, “How did a high-powered family like that produce such a non-entity?”

    ***

    My dad was friends with Abe Rosenthal, and I went to elementary school with Pinch’s illegitimate half brother (per “The Trust”, the big 1998 book on the paper’s history). He was five years younger than Pinch and the product of an affair between Punch and one of the paper’s reporters. He also had schooling and disciplinary issues and was something of a bully, but after reading the book and knowing that mom told him from a young age who his dad was — because he would tell me in grade school dad was the ‘owner’ of The New York Times, which I didn’t believe … until I read the book in 1999. After that, I could understand why he had some issues, because he was totally disavowed by his real dad (the book says the Sulzburger family eventually reached a settlement with him).

    Dad and Abe exchanged letters back in the 1980s, when Rosenthal was set to wrap up his career as Times editor, where he knew the long knifes were out for him in the newsroom, by people who wanted the paper to go into liberal advocacy journalism. It held off even for a few years after Rosenthal retired, because Punch was still running things, but as noted above, once Pinch took over, there was little to no separation between the Times’ liberal op-ed page opinions and the more political Page 1 stories, a problem that’s only grown over the past 25 years.

  17. Dave F Says:

    JE, on “Pravda on the Potomac”. I was accosted in the mall by a gentleman selling subscriptions for the Wash Post. He was selling subscriptions to work through school. I informed him that I could not in good conscience give money to Pravda. He had no idea what I was talking about. He was a history major. I sometimes wonder how many writers at the Post or the times know what Pravda was.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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