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Pinch, Power, and the Paper

Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd may have fallen on their swords. But that doesn't mean the man who sent them into battle, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., has given up his mission to change the New York Times.

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Power Players: Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and ex-editors Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd.  

In New York Times tradition—or mythology—the Times editor functions more or less as prime minister, and the Sulzberger family, the Times’ controlling shareholders, as constitutional monarchs. Hence, with the government in crisis, Howell Raines, the executive editor and presumptive prime minister, tendered his resignation to his liege, Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

Under this (unwritten) constitutional system, a new government will now be formed, and, therefore, the crisis will have passed.

And yet it is hard to have observed this crisis and not have seen Sulzberger as something more than titular. Even though it probably would have benefited him to have been more distantly preoccupied on the fabled fourteenth floor, he has inserted himself at almost every opportunity into the mess.

He’s been signing memos along with Raines to the newsroom staff, in a departure from long tradition; it’s his mug that the paparazzi have been shooting; he’s officiated at newsroom meetings; he’s been issuing voluble statements to the media; he’s empowered the multiple committees and investigations.

Sulzberger’s made it clear that he is in charge—and not reluctantly.

In some sense, this may be reassuring—or at least it’s supposed to be. It’s one reason why monarchs exist—to be there when mortals fail.

But in another sense, it gets harder and harder for everybody to avoid the conclusion that this is Arthur’s show, and has been for a long time, and that, with Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd now sacrificed, he’s the remaining player in this drama.

“It sucks”—which is how he’s memorably described the Jayson Blair mess—is Arthur-speak.

Almost every story that people tell about conversations with the Times publisher is somehow about his bluntness or flippancy—his tone issues. About him saying this or that person is an asshole, or about how something is all fucked up, or about some other swift, colloquial, often disparaging, unmediated remark he has made.

Some time ago, when I called Arthur about doing a formal sit-down interview, he said he would think about it. When we spoke a few days later, he said, “I’ve really thought about it, and you know why I don’t want to do it? Because I hate New York Magazine.”

Many people have conflicted responses to his brusqueness or unceremoniousness—or superciliousness.

First, it’s a little scary. You have a person with such great, even august, power, apparently not at all mindful of what he says. You’re afraid for him—that he might lack a certain order of self-control. Candor becomes aggression.

And then you’re afraid for yourself.

What does it mean when the chairman and publisher of the New York Times thinks someone is an asshole? What does it mean when the chairman and publisher of the Times says he hates my magazine?

But then you find yourself wondering if it isn’t refreshing. The point is not that he talks differently from anyone else but that he talks just like anyone else. You could be friends. Why not? He’s quick and funny. He’s got an open smile. Bright eyes. Great hair. Let’s go have a drink.

Then it gets confusing. Because you’ve separated him in your mind from the Times—in a way that you would never have separated his circumspect and courtly father. It’s not just that you’ve differentiated Arthur Jr. from the Times but that you have great trouble reconciling the two. Arthur in bearing and tone doesn’t seem Timesian at all. He isn’t earnest. He may be smart, but he isn’t thoughtful. He isn’t highbrow, or obviously culturally minded, or even recognizably a Jewish liberal—indeed, he gets annoyed when people assume that just because he’s from one of the great New York Jewish families, he is Jewish (he was raised as an Episcopalian).

He seems, in a sense, more cut out to be a tabloid editor. He could be one of Murdoch’s sons, or any ambitious upstart in the media business.

What he does not seem to be is the self-effacing steward, in a long line of self-effacing stewards, of the world’s greatest newspaper.

The relationship of the Times, or more precisely the Times newsroom, to the Sulzberger family is an intricate, complex, and—despite the various books devoted to the subject—mysterious one. It is, arguably, the most successful relationship between staff and proprietor in journalism history. It’s not just the relative noninterference of the family in newsroom matters, or the remoteness factor, but also the historical willingness of the controlling shareholders to see themselves as subordinated to the larger idea of the Times.

It is, too, a tone thing. The relationship is in the inflection. The family has always exerted its influence through intricate tact and discretion.

This special relationship has been so ingrained in the thinking of the Times that even as consternation has been building in the newsroom—not just over the Jayson Blair affair but over several years of changes—almost no one has said (certainly not with any ferocity) it’s an Arthur issue.

Nobody seems to have assumed—as you might with any corporation that gets a new top executive—that as part of Arthur’s taking control, the company, and hence the paper, would naturally go in a dramatic, unsettling new direction.

Jayson Blair was just a little piece of shell that drops into the pan when you break the eggs.

The elevation of Arthur to controlling executive has been, in fact, a glacial process. As recently as three years ago, when I asked Joe Lelyveld, then the executive editor of the paper—and now the interim editor replacing Raines—to speak on a conference panel, he could say that seeing as how he really didn’t have time for conferences, why didn’t I ask Arthur? (While this was probably as dismissive as it seemed, it was, I think, an acknowledgment that Arthur likes to speak to groups, that he is outward-looking in a way that the Times has not traditionally been outward-looking.)

And yet it has happened. Young Arthur, as he is still persistently called (along with the belittling “Pinch”), has certainly taken charge. He has won various executive-suite battles (over his father’s retainers). He has won various family turf feuds (over ambitious cousins). And, in the figure of Howell Raines, he installed his guy—a guy who spoke with Sulzberger’s kind of I-don’t-care-ness—in the newsroom. Howell was his instrument.


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