Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, who as publisher and chairman of the New York Times Co. guided his family-controlled newspaper through epochal moments in American journalism, died Saturday at his home in Southampton, N.Y. He was 86.
The family said he died after a long illness.
Sulzberger, a scion of one the nation's great publishing families, and father of the current publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., stood up to government pressure over the paper's critical coverage of the Vietnam War, published the Pentagon's own secret history of the war, oversaw the transformation of the enterprise to a publicly traded company and played an incalculable role in shaping the Times for generations of readers.
As publisher from 1963 to 1992, he is credited with upholding what many journalists consider the highest standards of the profession and challenging powerful interests in all corners of society. The paper won 31 Pulitzer Prizes under his stewardship.
Authors Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones, in their unofficial history of the newspaper, "The Trust," called him "arguably the greatest" Times publisher since Adolph Ochs purchased the paper in 1896.
An enduring imprint
Sulzberger's imprint was felt in many enduring ways. He made the paper available nationally via satellite printing plants and, in 1970, introduced the op-ed (opposite-editorial) page, which showcases columnists and outside writers whose opinions sometimes differ from the paper's institutional voice.
He broadened the paper's appeal by increasing coverage of science, sports, religion, arts and lifestyle news -- changes dismissed by critics. But the sections -- SportsMonday, Science Times, Living, Home and Weekend -- were an instant success. He made crucial appointments throughout the newsroom, elevating the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist A.M. Rosenthal to managing editor and later to executive editor, and adding columnist William Safire.
As a new publisher, Sulzberger rebuffed a request from President John F. Kennedy to recall the Times' Vietnam correspondent, David Halberstam, who had annoyed the military and administration with reports that punctured official claims about the war's progress, reports which brought Halberstam and the Times a share of the 1964 Pulitzer for international reporting.
Under Sulzberger's guidance, the Times prevailed in a 1964 landmark libel case. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protects the publication of all statements made without malice about the conduct of public officials.
The Pentagon Papers
In 1971, the Times was leaked a secret history, known as the Pentagon Papers, detailing 25 years of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. The Nixon administration was furious. Although Sulzberger knew that the Times might be sued and driven into financial ruin and that he might be sent to jail, he decided to publish a multipart series at Rosenthal's urging.
On the second day, the Justice Department went to court to start proceedings to stop publication. It led to an expedited appeal to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the newspapers could continue publishing, establishing a newspaper's right to publish without government's prior restraint.
Arthur Ochs Sulzberger was born Feb. 5, 1926, in New York City. His mother, Iphigene Ochs, was the daughter of Times founder Adolph Ochs. His father, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, served as publisher from 1935 to 1961.
An indifferent student hampered by hereditary dyslexia, he enlisted at 17 in the Marine Corps during World War II. He served in the Pacific as a radio operator. Without his knowledge, his father asked Gen. Douglas MacArthur to look after his son, and the young Marine was attached to MacArthur's staff, accompanying him to Japan for the surrender.
Sulzberger was an unlikely figure to guide the Times into the modern era. He was named publisher at 37, despite some family resistance. He later described himself as "shellshocked" by the job.
But he reshaped the company, setting up its first budget and overhauling its business organization. He negotiated key agreements with unions that resulted in long-delayed technological improvements.
"Adolph Ochs is remembered as the one who founded this great enterprise," Richard Gelb, a Times board member, said in 1997, when Sulzberger stepped down as chairman. "Arthur Ochs Sulzberger will be remembered as the one who secured it, renewed it and lifted it to ever-higher levels of achievement."
At Sulzberger's death, the Times was being run by a fourth generation of his family, a rarity in an age when the management of most U.S. newspapers is determined by distant corporate boards. A family trust guarantees continued control by Ochs' descendants. It was no coincidence, Sulzberger believed, that some of the country's finest newspapers were family-owned. "My conclusion is simple," he once said with characteristic humor. "Nepotism works."
The New York Times contributed to this report.