The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times

By Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones

Little, Brown. 870 pp. $29.95

By James Bowman, American editor of the Times Literary Supplement of London, film critic of the American Spectator and media critic of the New Criterion.

That the New York Times is still owned and run by the family of the man who bought it more than a century ago is considered by the husband-and-wife team of Susan Tifft and Alex Jones to be the most remarkable thing about it. It certainly is remarkable. Adolph S. Ochs, a brash young newspaper publisher from Chattanooga, would have been no one's choice to save what in 1896 was one of the least healthy of New York's many dailies. Nor could he have succeeded in doing so without disguising the extent of his own indebtedness in ways that would scarcely be possible today. It seems little short of miraculous that the almost-bankrupt Times should not only have been saved by the almost-bankrupt Ochs but also transmitted, as America's prestigious "newspaper of record" and a multibillion-dollar business, to the fourth generation of his descendants.

But this approach to their subject also allows Tifft and Jones, who share a professorship at Duke, to make it an "epic" (the word actually appears in the book's publicity material) family saga like that of the Louisville newspaper family that was the subject of their previous collaboration, "The Patriarch: The Rise and Fall of the Bingham Dynasty." True, there is no dramatic "fall" to recount in the case of the Ochses and Sulzbergers, but there is plenty of family gossip to fill out the story of their rise and rise. Above all there is the formidable matriarch Iphigene Ochs Sulzberger (1892-1990), daughter of Adolph Ochs, wife of Arthur Hays Sulzberger (publisher, 1935-61), mother of Arthur Ochs "Punch" Sulzberger (publisher, 1963-92) and grandmother of Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. (publisher, 1992-present). The role of Iphigene in holding the family business together in spite of her husband's affairs and illnesses, his rivalry for the publishership with her cousin Julius Ochs Adler, the death of her son-in-law Orvil Dryfoos (publisher, 1961-63), her son's divorce and her grandson's emergence by the time she died as the heir apparent from among the 13 more or less resentful cousins of the fourth generation--all of this could have made a best-selling novel and will doubtless win a lot of readers for this book. "The Trust" is less good as a history of the Times itself, which is after all the only reason, apart from a rather vulgar fascination with the private lives of the rich and powerful, why the family has any claim on our attention.

Although the authors are very thorough on episodes such as the Pentagon Papers or the Times's agreement not to publish in advance what it knew about the Bay of Pigs operation--episodes which, for its better and worse reputation, have become part of the iconography of heroic journalism of the past 30 years--overall the story of the newspaper tends to get lost amid the family gossip. One might have hoped that the quasi-ecclesiastical status afforded the New York Times today would have elicited a more critical perspective. And then there is the problem of the writing, which amounts to the revenge of the more popular end of the news business on the gravitas and seriousness of the Gray Lady of 43rd Street.

"In the copper twilight of early summer," the book begins, "Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. bounded up the granite steps of New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art with the self-assured air of royalty. At the top he greeted Ted Koppel, host of ABC's 'Nightline,' and NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw, then plunged into the throng, a mixture of business magnates, society mavens, artists, politicians, television anchors, and the seniormost executives and editors of his family's newspaper, The New York Times. Lean as a whippet in an elegantly tailored tuxedo, he air-kissed the women and clapped the men on the back, exchanging wisecracks, his signature way of dealing with people."

Fortunately, things get better. A certain sense of dignity and decorum befitting its subject eventually sits down hard on the rambunctious vulgarian whose squirming presence, nevertheless, is never far from our consciousness, especially at the beginnings of chapters. "Like the United States," write the authors, "Arthur [Hays Sulzberger] emerged from the war with new confidence in his capabilities and powers. He had run The New York Times with relative independence during the most threatening conflict of the century and had become thoroughly intoxicated with the heady world of Roosevelt, Eisenhower, MacArthur, and Churchill."

Doubtless there are those at the New York Times itself who see nothing untoward about comparisons between the newspaper and the country, but those who write about it for outsiders ought to keep more distance. Tifft and Jones rarely do. If anything they are more likely to puff the Times than the Times itself is. Self-importance on one's own behalf is natural if unlovely; self-importance on someone else's behalf sounds like sycophancy.

They also display a penchant for insolent amateur psychologizing. This is mostly directed at Punch Sulzberger, the retired publisher whose sisters, we are told, "noted that he had a 'wall' around him, that he was incapable of sustaining a conversation of any length or depth if it spilled over into the realm of emotions." The authors never tire of repeating this pseudo-profundity: "Having grown up as the only boy in an undemonstrative family, he was singularly ill-equipped to grapple with raw emotion or ponder what motivated people. His visceral response, honed since childhood, was to retreat to that familiar, private place inside himself where no one could reach him."

How do you "hone" a "visceral response"? The sloppiness of the writing is appropriate to the sloppiness of the analysis. The authors spend far too much time on--and occasionally go to ridiculous lengths to illustrate--their dubious psychological profile in the apparent belief that it explains things. But does it really tell us anything that Punch's son, the present publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., had a hard time "forging a bond" with his father? Is it really so extraordinary that "when Arthur Jr. shot baskets with his cousins . . . Punch made no effort to join in"?

That this is not quite the self-evidently significant datum that the authors make it out to be would hardly embarrass them. They take for granted the new journalistic culture in which the reporter becomes a part of his story and furnishes "analysis" along with the facts. Their own analysis is routinely patronizing, not only to Punch but to all previous generations of his family. As a result, "The Trust" is at its best as it approaches the present day and provides real insight into the workings and personalities of the New York Times under Punch Sulzberger's son. But a fatal tendency to condescend to the earlier generations makes it unreliable overall as an account of the history of America's most prominent newspaper.