'The Trust,' a family saga and a newspaper adventure

On Books

October 31, 1999|By Michael Pakenham

I have spent my life thus far -- usefully, I believe, and immensely satisfyingly -- not working for the New York Times. We flirted a few times over thirtysome years, the Times and I, and many of the friends I most warmly esteem have been on its staff, while I have bounced around six other worthy newspapers. We weren't made for each other. None of that diminishes my certainty that the Times is the best and most important newspaper on Earth, and probably in all history.

Now comes that newspaper's more-or-less official biography: "The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times" by Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones (Little, Brown, 870 pages, $29.95).

It is the first exhaustive study of the Ochs-Sulzberger family and the first book based on full access to family members and documents. It is long, fluent, intensely engaging. Its language and texture are artful and professional. It is obligatory reading for anyone concerned with the role of journalism in a democracy. (I can think of three other books that constitute important histories of the Times: Harrison Salisbury's "Without Fear or Favor" in 1980, Gay Talese's "The Kingdom and the Power" in 1969 and Meyer Berger's "Story of the New York Times" in 1951. Serious students of the institution and the craft must go to these as well.)

Alex Jones spent many years on the Times' staff, including serving as its press reporter from 1983 to 1992. Tifft, his wife, was a writer and editor at Time magazine. In 1991, their book about the Bingham newspaper family, "The Patriarch," was published. Following that, they devoted seven years and more to "The Trust."

The book is much less the story of the newspaper than of the family that Jones and Tifft properly call "arguably the most powerful blood-related dynasty in twentieth-century America."

That family has been and remains defined by towering, history-making, unity -- and fractious, even dysfunctional, individual quirkiness. In this book there is more than enough adultery, hard drinking, jealousy, skirt-chasing, personal betrayal, drug-dallying and other human failings to keep a television soap going for seasons.

Most deeply, the book is about a family's state of conscience, its doctrine: that a newspaper is a public trust, and nothing -- neither profits nor other commercial considerations -- may prevail over the imperatives to cover the news with unflinching courage and sometimes exorbitant costs.

The founding father of the dynasty was Adolph S. Ochs, a Chattanooga, Tenn., printer and publisher who manipulated bankers and others into letting him gain control of the virtually bankrupt and undistinguished New York Times. In his first edition, Aug. 19, 1896, he committed the Times to "give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect or interests involved."

Virtually confiscatory inheritance taxes and the nature of families to squabble over self-perceived interests dictate that very few American corporations long stay in the hands of founding families. Solidarity, diligence and financial sacrifice ensured the Times remain controlled by the fourth generation. Though its stock now is publicly traded, the power remains with 13 "owning cousins" voting the controlling shares.

Throughout his magistracy -- he died in 1935 -- Ochs never took out more than a $25,000 annual salary. By 1920 or so, the paper had earned $100 million, but only 3 percent of that had gone to the shareholders, all in the family. During World War II, when paper was severely rationed, Och's successor, his son-in-law, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, ruled that space priority be given to expanded news coverage and circulation rather than lucrative advertising.

Between 1937 and 1957, after-tax profits were a mere 4.5 percent -- way below the financial yields of other less successful papers. For much of the paper's century in the family, there were no budgets and precious little planning of any financial or managerial kind. Today, in an era of vast profits among other large newspapers, the Times, while prospering with annual revenues of $2.9 billion, remains relatively modest in terms of its profit margins.

The fifth publisher in the family, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., Ochs' great-grandson, has a habit of taking Transit Authority buses to work in the morning.

An internal serious joke at the Times for many years until the 1960s was that it was owned by Jews and edited by Catholics for Protestants. In retrospect,Ochs' and his successors' aversion to having the paper appear "Jewish" in content or emphasis seems extreme -- and indeed often was.

Indisputably, it underreported the Holocaust. The paper's story of the liberation of Dachau did not contain the word "Jew." A July 1944 report of Nazi extermination of 400,000 Hungarian Jews appeared on page 12 -- and so on.

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