Editorial: Sulzberger maintained New York Times’ platform as top paper
Published: Thursday, October 4, 2012
Updated: Thursday, October 4, 2012 23:10
Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the longtime publisher of The New York Times who died last week at age 86, was an inspiration to anybody who values quality journalism. His contributions made immeasurable progress to investigative reporting, and kept the Times alive and well, which arguably has more influence on this country than any other newspaper (not to mention informing many students here at UConn, owing to the university program distributing free copies around campus).
In 1964, Sulzberger helped take the libel case New York Times v. Sullivan all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, culminating in a decision which perhaps did more than any other to ensure freedom of the press. The Times published a full-page advertisement implying high criticism of L.B. Sullivan, the Public Safety Commissioner of Montgomery, Ala. The Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protects any statements published about public officials made without “actual malice,” meaning the statements could not be made knowing they were false or with “reckless disregard” of their possible falsity. In other words, the standard for prosecuting the press for criticizing any public official was made extremely high, so high as to render it almost impossible for such an official to prevail.
In 1971, The New York Times published the Pentagon Papers, classified documents from the U.S. military that detailed hidden secrets of the military’s tactics and involvement in Vietnam. The exposed material cast a dark shadow of doubt on the legitimacy and truthfulness of previous statements issued by the Pentagon and the presidency, in some cases even revealing the outright lies previously perpetrated on an unknowing public. Sulzberger was even warned that he might face the possibility of a prison sentence as a result of his actions, but he proceeded regardless. (And fortunately stayed out of jail.)
In 1970 Sulzberger introduced the op-ed page, a forum for commentary columnists and others. For example, this section is the primary medium for Nicholas D. Kristof, the columnist and author whose book “Half the Sky” was the UConn Reads selection last semester and who filled the Student Union Theatre with his lecture in April. The newspaper won 31 Pulitzer Prizes while Sulzberger was at the helm from 1963 to 1992.
As student journalists ourselves, we value and take lessons from the legacy Sulzberger set. But even for those not looking to enter the journalism field, the New York Times has for decades exposed corruption, brought an unparalleled level of news analysis to the debate and helped keep public officials honest. Arthur Ochs Sulzberger played no small part in helping craft and retain that reputation.