Arthur Ochs Sulzberger was a name that almost any journalist who does not work for Fox News would recognize. Most HispanicLatinos never heard of him. The former publisher of The New York Times died Saturday. As soon as family members announced his death, they started receiving the usual praise that accompanies most men at the time of their deaths. By almost any measure of those who knew him, Sulzberger merited the honors that made their way to his family. This posting is not about Sulzberger. It is more about the importance of the period in journalism in which he lived his life and that his family’s newspaper nurtured. It would be interesting in a few years from now to see what is written about Rupert Murdoch, another influential publisher and Sulzberger’s contemporary.
Like Murdoch, Sulzberger will have had an enormous impact on journalism and, indeed, the world. Murdoch built an international news empire that includes Fox. But no one would ever confuse the two.
Long before so many of today’s “news” organizations came to manage their operations with a questionable sense of integrity utilizing iffy journalistic standards, some newspapers rivaled Fox for their sheer disregard for common decency. When newspapers in this country began emerging from the years in which they practiced xenophobic yellow journalism, they laid down the foundation on which the country began to move to redeem its constitutional promise to itself.
Led by newspapers like the Times, the reformation of the rest of the newspaper industry arrived just before television began to emerge as the powerful force it is today. In a serendipitous moment for the nation, television came into being at the right time and at the right place – in New York under the shadow of the Times. The reformation of the newspaper industry influenced the standards the national television networks adopted. Looking around for how to model their news organizations, the creators of the networks had the best just down the street. Big deal. Yes, it is a big deal.
Had the networks not been organized near the confines of the Times, they might not have been the vehicles through which the civil rights movement succeeded and changed the country. It was, after all, television – with its searing images of savage police dogs biting black protestors and scenes of bombed-out churches – that tipped public opinion in favor of the epic struggle to vouchsafe the Constitution.
The course of history would have been different had television been born into the neighborhood of the Dealey brothers of The Dallas Morning News. Imagine that family owning ABC. The Scaifes of Pittsburgh managing CBS. The McCormicks of Chicago controlling NBC. What if Murdoch had been around then? Without the progress made possible by the editorial leadership of the Times influencing the networks in New York and vice versa, the advancement the country made on civil rights would have been tenuous. Life today would be different – for HispanicLatinos, surely.
No man, no family and, of course, no newspaper is without fault. But some individuals are better-willed than others. It seems unlikely that Rupert Murdoch, whose newspapers are being hounded by investigators for routinely – routinely! – bugging the phones of individuals, would ever have faced down a presidential demand to not publish the long record of deceit about Vietnam known as the Pentagon Papers. Sulzberger did. Murdoch would have acquiesced to Richard Nixon in exchange for a television license somewhere.
Murdoch appealing to the lowest of brows and whipping up racial and economic unrest and promoting the cynicism that has nurtured our murderously partisan times – and the lawless internet – have put enormous pressure on television news. Against the wishes of good men and women within, some networks have been forced to blur the lines between news and opinion. Newspapers are no less immune from that same, constant threat.
Yet Sulzberger came down on the right side of the struggle between the power-full and the power-less that has plagued humankind since antiquity and on the side of the Constitution. More important than to praise a man upon his death is to value his life in the context of the world he and his family helped make. Without The New York Times and men like Sulzberger, the world would be quite different.
More of it would be run by men like Murdoch. And America would be less for it..
Jesse Treviño is the former editorial page editor of The Austin American-Statesman.