By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Of dogs and moose

Last night I finally had a chance to read Ken Auletta’s nearly-10,000-word New Yorker piece on New York Times Co. chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. The subhead asks, “Can Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., save the Times — and himself?” Unfortunately, Auletta is able only to muster a “maybe.” Still, Auletta does his usual dogged, thorough job of reporting every angle, and his graceful writing makes this a surprisingly quick read.

One complaint: Other than a detailed rehash of Jayson Blair/ Howell Raines/ Judith Miller (including the reappearance of the moose), I didn’t come away from the article with any clearer sense than I had before of what kind of business executive or publisher Sulzberger is. Auletta reports that Sulzberger has a reputation for being disengaged from the business side of his job, and well-intentioned but naive when it comes to journalism. But there’s little here in the way of examples that we don’t already know.

I did find myself feeling — well, not exactly sorry for Judith Miller, but nevertheless appalled by Sulzberger’s treatment of her. By Auletta’s account, Sulzberger morphed from her biggest champion into someone who wanted nothing to do with her without ever having the grace to tell her why.

There are also several telling anecdotes, and this is perhaps the most brutal:

On September 12th, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was invited to a publisher’s luncheon at which various Times editors and reporters were present. Such events are common in the life of the Times and other major newspapers, but this one had an odd start. A security dog that had earlier been sniffing for bombs got sick on the carpet of the room where the lunch was to be held. The mess was cleaned up, but the stench was still noticeable when Rice and her party arrived. The air-conditioning was turned up high to diminish the smell, but it was difficult to hear above the noise. Sulzberger greeted Rice and, according to the transcript posted on the State Department’s Web site, began by asking how she thought the United States was “viewed right now by the United Nations,” and whether it mattered. “And before you answer that question, just so everybody knows,” he said, “it’s pretty loud in this room, so my apologies. The bomb-sniffing dog threw up here.” Everyone laughed, but Sulzberger continued to apologize, and, as some of the reporters present cringed, Rice finally said, “Thank you for sharing that.”

More than anything, Auletta’s story is a cautionary tale of what can happen when a family dynasty is determined to keep things in the family. Obviously there is no way someone with Sulzberger’s flaws could have risen to the top of the Times Co. — and the Times — had he not been the son of Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger. The son’s inadequacies are now being exposed for everyone to see.

Yet surely it’s a good thing that the Times Co. hasn’t passed into the hands of a huge, publicly traded corporation. Sulzberger does seem to know that a relentless focus on the bottom line would ultimately be bad for business, since the excellence of the Times’ journalism is the only real product that he’s got to sell. If only there were more newspaper executives who believed that.

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Startling and disturbing


Jeff Jarvis responds

1 Comment

  1. Bill Baar

    One investment strategy is only invest in companies a fool can run because one day a fool will almost certainly be running it.Auletta’s shown the NYT has found their fool. It may take going public to get rid of this one though.

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