Are New York Times publishers born stupid?

Media criticism.
March 31 2009 6:58 PM

Are Times Publishers Born Stupid?

Let's check the historical record.

Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr.
Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr.

The simplest way to write a journalistic profile is to present its subject as either a giant or a dwarf. New York Times Publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. gets the dwarf-standing-in-a-ditch treatment in Mark Bowden's feature in the May Vanity Fair, as named and unnamed sources freely slag Arthur Jr. in the piece.

Gawker collected a variety of insults and trash talk that project a not-so-bright, plodding fellow. An unnamed former associate of Arthur Jr.'s tells Bowden that the business side of the company viewed him with contempt. "They saw him as insubstantial, as flighty, as glib, and as not caring about them as much as he cared about journalists," the unnamed source says. Diane Baker, a former chief financial officer of the New York Times Co., says Arthur Jr. has the personality of "a twenty-four-year-old-geek." Bowden writes that even the "mid-level talent around Arthur [Jr.] does not regard him as a peer, much less a suitable leader." Uncollected by Gawker: "To a degree some of his top staff consider unwise, he tends to promote people based not on a cold-eyed assessment of their talent but on how comfortable he feels around them—on how much fun they are."

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It's not that Bowden thinks Arthur Jr. is actively stupid. In fact, he writes that Arthur Jr. is "clearly smart." But it's the way that Bowden finishes the sentence—"Arthur is not especially intellectual"—that completes his thought. Bowden continues, "For what it's worth, he is a Star Trek fan. His mind wanders, particularly when pressed to concentrate on complicated business matters." In other words, smart enough to don a unitard and command the Starship Enterprise from an imaginary bridge but not smart enough to publish the Times.

If Arthur Jr. is a simpleton, he upholds a family tradition that can be traced to his clan's founding patriarch, Adolph S. Ochs. Ochs purchased a controlling interest in the New York Times in 1896 and his relatives and descendants have operated the paper ever since. (Consult New Yorkmagazine's "Children of the Times" [PDF] genealogy to keep all the players straight in your head.)

Adolph S. Ochs.
Adolph S. Ochs

How stupid was Adolph S. Ochs? Garet Garrett, who worked for Ochs on the Times editorial page, regarded his boss a bit of a lamebrain. "Intellectually he is the inferior of any man at the [editorial] council table," Garrett scribbled in the diary he kept in 1915 and 1916. "None of us values his mental processes highly." Garrett also faulted Ochs' ungrammatical constructions, criticized his vocabulary, and clucked about how the Times owner was "always impressed by large figures of wealth or income." Dumb. Unlettered. Shallow. Sound familiar?

If Ochs carried a dumb gene, it did not taint his only child, daughter Iphigene. In a more enlightened era, she, instead of her husband, the equally bright and personable Arthur Hays Sulzberger, might have inherited the company reins from her father. Sulzberger became publisher in 1936, when the old man died.

But back to the bloodline. Iphigene presented Ochs with his first grandson in 1926, but upon visiting the hospital, Ochs "took one look at the wrinkled infant and pronounced him unacceptable," write Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones' book The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times.

The infant, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, was nicknamed "Punch," and Punch was always regarded as a dullard. "Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the only son of Arthur Hays Sulzberger, was a man-child never taken seriously even by his own family, much less executives and editors of the Times," Joseph C. Goulden writes in 1988's Fit To Print: A.M. Rosenthal and His Times. Later in the book, Goulden reprises the Punch-as-knucklehead theme, writing, "One man who worked for the Times in 1955 said the consensus opinion among 'real reporters' was that 'the old man ought to put Punch in a sack with a heavy rock and drop him in the river.' "

Edwin Diamond echoes Goulden in his 1993 book, Behind the Times: Inside the New New York Times. Punch turned in an "indifferent academic performance as a child" and "was not judged very bright by his own parents. In later years, he would joke to interviewers about the schools he had quit 'right before they were going to throw me out.' "

Punch's poor reputation followed him to the Times, Diamond reports:

From the day [Sulzberger] walked into the building, he had to contend with the impression that he was an intellectual lightweight, and undeserving of his position at the paper. This early judgment, based as much on hearsay as any firsthand evidence, was never wholly erased.

It should be noted that during Punch's tenure as publisher (1963-92), the Times became a bigger, more important journalistic institution. Or maybe that should be "in spite of Punch, the Times became a bigger, more important journalistic institution." Perhaps he had the Forrest Gump thing working!

If Punch was stupid, he was stupid enough to treat Arthur Jr. stupidly. In 1976, after getting Arthur Jr. a reporting job at the Associated Press' London bureau to season him for future employment at the Times, Punch arranged a job for his son's wife, Gail, at the United Press International's London bureau. From Tifft and Jones' book:

The first draft of his letter recommending Gail to the head of UPI betrayed doubts about his son's maturity and intelligence. "We think she is smarter than he is," Punch had dictated, but when his secretary, Nancy Finn, sat down to type the letter, she blanched. "You can't write that!" she told him. Chastened, Punch excised the offending sentence. To Finn, the incident was reminiscent of what Punch had suffered at the hands of his own father.

As best as I can determine, nobody—inside or outside the family—has insulted the intelligence of Arthur Jr.'s son, A.G. Sulzberger, who now reports for the Times and is considered an heir to the throne.

But it's early yet.

******

Bowden unfairly dumps blame for the disastrous purchase of the Boston Globe on Arthur Jr. That deal went down in October 1993, and Punch didn't retire as chairman and chief executive until 1997. Send e-mail to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. Also, the stupid and the intelligent are invited to follow my Twitter. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.