Remembering “Punch” Sulzberger: The Man Who Changed Journalism

An appreciation of the late New York Times publisher by one of the country’s premier historians of the American press

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Ray Howard / AP

New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger in his office in New York, July 20, 1977.

Arthur Ochs “Punch” Sulzberger, the late publisher of the New York Times, is most celebrated – and rightly so – for his decision to go forward with publication the Pentagon Papers in1971. Punch was not a gifted journalist or a great editor or a brilliant executive. He was, however, something out of a Frank Capra movie – a man with a deep sense of decency and profound common sense who also had guts. It took great courage to publish the classified documents in defiance of the government’s demand that he stop.

It was a seminal moment for American journalism because the nation’s leading journalistic institution, which was considered the heart of the mainstream press, had done something virtually unprecedented. Until then there were few moments when the traditional press had bucked the government. The legacy ofWorld War II and the Cold War had been to make the nation’s news organizations compliant and even servile. For Punch, a former Marine and a political conservative, to lead a journalistic revolution was hard to imagine.

(MORE: TIME on the Times: Arthur Ochs Sulzberger’s Legacy, from the Archives)

Or was it? In 1963, Punch had famously cancelled the vacation of David Halberstam, who was reporting from Vietnam, after President John F. Kennedy summoned the Times publisher to the White House to excoriate him. Punch had just become the boss of the paper, and he walked to the White House accompanied by James Reston, the paper’s long time Washington bureau chief and a personal friend of Kennedy’s. Reston wasn’t at all sure whether Punch would buckle under such pressure. It had been Times practice in the past to be cozily genial with the president, and not to rock the boat.

Punch was shocked, then annoyed, and finally defiant. Kennedy’s complaint was that Halberstam was not reporting the news the way the Pentagon was dishing it out. Halberstam’s critical and skeptical account of reality on the ground in Vietnam, however, was unusual. Other major news organizations were providing their readers with a much more unquestioning account of what was happening. It was as though the press were still in World War II mode with virtual censorship.

Punch not only cancelled Halberstam’s leave, he made sure that he kept reporting as he had been, and this proved to be very significant because it opened the door for other reporters at news organizations like the Associated Press and UPI to begin to do the same. If the Times was reporting critically, these other news outlets had the cover to do the same.

(MORE: Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Former New York Times Publisher, Dies at Age 86)

Many, many years later, Columbia University gathered together a group of journalists who had won Pulitzer Prizes for their Vietnam coverage. After the day of celebration, the group – including Halberstam – adjourned to Elio’s, an Italian restaurant in New York City, for a boozy dinner. To their surprise, also dining at Elio’s that night was Punch Sulzberger. They collectively sent over a bottle of Champagne with their thanks. If it hadn’t been for Punch, their best work would never have seen the light of day.

Sulzberger eased his way through life with a sly sense of humor—and the decision to publish the Pentagon Papers was no exception. He was fond of telling the story of how, in the days before the documents were published, he was wracked by indecision and was getting contradictory advice, always at maximum volume. The Times’s lawyers had told him they would not represent the paper if the documents were published because they were classified. They told him he would almost certainly go to jail if he went forward.

On the other side of the argument, Reston and the paper’s top editor, Abe Rosenthal, were insisting that the Times had a journalistic responsibility to publish and that not to do so would destroy the trust of the paper’s readers when they found out what had been kept from them.

(MORE: Arthur Ochs Sulzberger: The Kingdom and the Cabbage)

At one point, as Punch told the story, he told Rosenthal that he wanted to read the Pentagon Papers. If he was going to risk his birthright and maybe go tojail, he wanted to know why. A gleeful smile appeared on Rosenthal’s face, Punch said. A while later Rosenthal wheeled in several shopping carts stacked high with thousands of pages of documents. It was the Pentagon Papers – an archive detailing how the government had lied to the people of the United States about Vietnam from the start. It was a gigantic pile of memos and reports, letters and directives, and other pieces of paper that had been painstaking gone through by Times reporters over many weeks as they pieced together the story the Papers told. What Punch got were the Pentagon Papers themselves.

Undaunted, he started in.

“And it was then I learned,” he would later say, “that it is possible to read and sleep at the same time.”

It was this modest, sensible man who changed American journalism.

Jones is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and the Director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He reported on the press for the New York Times from 1983 to 1992.