FOR THREE DECADES at the helm of the New York Times, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger embodied the best of U.S. journalism — fierce independence, an unshakable commitment to quality and a resolve to put profits at the service of truth-telling.

Amiable, down-to-earth and disarmingly self-effacing, Mr. Sulzberger, who died Saturday at age 86, wasn’t the sort of publisher to put on airs. But there was no doubting his courage in the face of intimidation, even when it came from the highest levels of government, or the prestige of the newspaper he inherited and enhanced.

Revered by his editors and reporters, Mr. Sulzberger, known as “Punch,” could have played it safe. He had ascended to his job by virtue of birth into the family that owned the Times; no palace coup was likely to dislodge him. But despite his modest manner, and the doubts of some at the paper when he assumed command unexpectedly at age 37, he turned out to be a principled risk-taker, innovative in coaxing the Times into new ventures and markets, and gutsy in backing his journalists.

Part of his legacy is the continuing excellence of the Times, which he helped put on a sounder footing when it faced what seemed like a financial death spiral in the 1970s. An even more important contribution, perhaps, was his willingness to stand up to the Nixon White House, which went to court to block publication of the Pentagon Papers by the Times and, a few days later, by this newspaper.

Warned that he was jeopardizing his newspaper’s stature and even his own standing as a patriot, Mr. Sulzberger, who had served in two wars in the Marines, did not back down. He authorized his editors to run the stories that detailed the U.S. government’s decades of deceit over the war in Vietnam.

The Supreme Court validated that decision, rejecting the government’s efforts to muzzle the paper. The outcome reaffirmed the First Amendment’s guarantee of a free press and has stiffened the spine of many an editor facing pressure not to publish material that government officials find embarrassing.

It wasn’t the first time, nor the last, that Mr. Sulzberger put his trust in the judgment of his journalists. In his unassuming way, he embodied the principles laid out by his grandfather Adolph S. Ochs, the 19th-century owner who shaped the modern Times: to report the news “without fear or favor.”