Jewish World Review Oct. 12, 2012/ 26 Tishrei, 5773
They called him Punch
By Paul Greenberg
They called him Punch, and he earned the sobriquet. A Marine, he came home from serving in the Pacific theater, then in the Korean Conflict, to help run the family business, which in the case of
Imagine that -- somebody with a military background running the Times. Even harder to imagine these days, when the good gray
Unassuming but forceful in his
But when the job of publisher was thrust upon him, he had charge of everything. And exercised his authority with a rare combination of sound judgment, self-restraint and good humor.
After he took over, the Times began its transformation from the country's dull-gray paper of record to a compilation of different special sections with something for everybody. Under his guidance, the Times gave American journalism some of its finest moments. As a couple of landmark judicial decisions attest to this day:
The only thing that made the Pentagon Papers a best-seller was the hysteria it set off in the
Through it all, Punch Sulzberger not only fought for freedom of the press but saved the Times to fight another day by keeping his eye on the bottom line, presiding over one of the most profitable periods of its history. At a time when newspapers are struggling for survival, it's good to remember they can not only survive but thrive. If they do, it will be because of publishers like Punch Sulzberger.
His time in the Marines was the formative, even transformative, experience in his life, which, looking back, he divided into before and after the Corps. He was no writer or editor, and had the surpassing good judgment to know it. Instead he was an executive of rare foresight and even vision.
Under his leadership, the Times went from reliable source to national institution. If only it could have been both. But in journalism, it's win some, lose some. As the
The Times' role as the country's trusted paper of record faded long ago. When its in-house critic,
As he put it, "a kind of political and cultural progressivism ... virtually bleeds through the fabric of the Times." Which explains why topics like
The role of family and of family heritage in the history of great American newspapers tends to be overlooked these days, when the spotlight is on star reporters and gossipy opinionators rather than workaday publishers who choose to continue the family tradition day after laborious day. That sense of duty, of noblesse oblige, used to come with the territory. Now it's thought of as a quaint, even oppressive, holdover from the past.
These days one newspaper empire after another is sold off because the next generation is no longer interested in running it. Which is sad, especially for the next generation of readers. But there are so many easier and more profitable ways to invest a fortune than fighting to keep a newspaper alive.
Punch Sulzberger was a now-rare phenomenon in this country: a publisher who understood the connection between great families and great newspapers. It's as if you can't have one without the other. And he drew the appropriate lesson. "My conclusion is simple," he once said, "Nepotism works." At least it does when a Punch Sulzberger is the heir.
Newspapers are the last, best and maybe only argument for absolute monarchy left in the world -- but only if the line of succession is respected, continued, and its burdens accepted, even embraced.
Punch Sulzberger's was a pre-
Today its fact-filled, judgment-rich obituaries may be the last vestige of the redoubtable old Times. Its current ideological spirit comes closer to that of
Punch Sulzberger did his best to hold back the murky tide. At one point he, who never messed with the editorial page, even insisted that the Times endorse
The list of Pulitzer Prizes every year will never be complete till it includes one for outstanding publishers, for in the end it is the publisher who determines the quality and character of a newspaper. The way Punch Sulzberger did for a glorious time.
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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.
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