NYT Publisher "Elicits Not Admiration So Much As Pity"

Vanity Fair’s Mark Bowden wrote an unauthorised profile of Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr, the chairman and publisher of the New York Times. It’s not so very flattering. For example, there’s this little one-two punch, toward the middle:

[Sulzberger Jr.] comes off as a lightweight, as someone slightly out of his depth, whose dogged sincerity elicits not admiration so much as pity. While no one blames him for what is clearly a crisis afflicting all newspapers, he has made a series of poor business moves that now follow him like the tail of a kite. He has doubled-down on print over the last two decades, most notably with his own newspaper but also spending more than a billion dollars to buy The Boston Globe and the International Herald Tribune. These purchases appear to have been historically mis-timed, rather like sinking your life savings into hot-air balloons long after the first excited reports from Kitty Hawk.

Mark even takes on Arthur’s more noble-seeming characteristics, like his staunch defence of Judy Miller during the whole Valerie Plame affair, and makes them look laughable:

In his eagerness to champion First Amendment rights [Sulzberger Jr.] blundered into a losing and ultimately embarrassing fight over his old friend Judith Miller, who went to jail to protect a source, former Cheney chief of staff Lewis “Scooter” Libby, before striking a deal with prosecutors. The fight was widely regarded as a poor one to make into a First Amendment test case, but that didn’t stop Arthur from charging to Miller’s defence. The “Free Judy” buttons he distributed made for a ludicrous contrast to his father’s storied battle over the Pentagon Papers. An explanatory mea culpa about the Miller case, written by the executive editor, Bill Keller, suggested that Miller had had an “entanglement” with Libby, which some read as a suggestion that she was sleeping with him. Keller, who had succeeded Raines in the wake of the Jayson Blair affair, quickly retreated from his retreat. The episode illustrated a broader perception: no adult was in charge. Where Arthur senior had been seen as stolid and serious, Arthur junior appeared callow. One of those involved in the Miller episode describes Arthur’s behaviour throughout as “childish.” Another word you hear is “goofy.”

Youch. Anyway, Times editor Bill Keller has heard enough. He’s written a letter to Graydon Carter, Vanity Fair’s editor. Here’s your copy, originally obtained by Jim Romensko:

To the Editor
Vanity Fair

If you strip away the bombast, the recycled anecdotes and the mistakes an elementary fact-checking should have caught (“1300 reporters” is off by about 800), you are left with Mark Bowden’s attempt at an original thesis. His thesis is this: Arthur Sulzberger believes that “journalism pays.” He actually believes that its value is not only civic, but commercial. Ho, ho. How naive of him. Journalism doesn’t pay.

Last year readers paid The New York Times more than $600 million to buy our newspaper. In a world of declining everything, our circulation revenue has gone up. That’s people paying good money for good journalism. And it buys us time to answer the existential question of our business, which is how we assure that journalism continues to pay. I’ll bet on Arthur Sulzberger finding the answer to that question before Mark Bowden does.

Bill Keller
The New York Times

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