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Winners and Losers at the ‘Times’

Without Fear or Favor: The New York Times and Its Times

by Harrison E. Salisbury
Times Books, 630 pp., $17.50

I

Harrison Salisbury’s study of The New York Times is like the Times itself, painstaking but not often pain-inflicting. Burdened with the duty to be reverent, both are raised now and then to revelation—usually, in the case of the Times, toward the third paragraph from the bottom of the story.

Salisbury does not quite convince us—and who could?—that reading even the best newspaper helps us far toward understanding the way the world works. But thinking about the Times is a useful employment for anyone seeking to know how the world works; and Salisbury has done us signal service in fortifying that view.

His Times seems to have developed rather as the nation has—from a structure of innocence based on a sound foundation of commercial calculation, into a structure of commercial calculation on a foundation of estimable but enfeebling innocence. That progression is illuminated in the sermons of its founder and in the philosophy and practices of his two successor publishers:

To give the news impartially without fear or favor regardless of any party, sect or interest involved.

—Publisher Adolph S. Ochs, 1896

The Times, was prepared to print any statement made by the government if they permitted themselves to be quoted “whether we believe them or not.” However, if the government wanted something run without attribution “then we must impose our own judgment as to whether or not it is true and use the story only if we believe it is true.” [italics mine]

—Publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger, 1954

The Director of the CIA: “I hate to bug you on this.” The Publisher of the Times: “You do not bug me ever.”

—Publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, 1974

Adolph S. Ochs, the Times‘s maker, conscientiously exempted government from an otherwise universal roster of parties, sects, or interests that could never hope to gain from his fear or favor. This singular concession to the whip of fear lost its writ long ago. The Times established such institutional permanence that our transitory federal administrations had better reason to be scared of it than it of them.

But the lure of favor continued, a never entirely resistible temptation to accommodate the partisan, sectarian interest we call government. When the Brothers Dulles were preparing their attentat against President Arbenz of Guatemala in 1954, Sydney Gruson, the Times‘s correspondent in Central America, manifested a curiosity so persistently vexatious that CIA Director Allen Dulles employed the stratagem of telling his friend and Princeton classmate, Times Business Manager-Julius Ochs Adler, that the agency’s file cast so much suspicion on Gruson’s political leanings that the nation would be better served if he were kept out of Guatemala.

The Times took respectful heed and bound Gruson to Mexico City while Dulles’s business in Guatemala was consummated without impediment by inconvenient inquiries. Arthur Hays Sulzberger had assumed that, in due course, Dulles would weigh in with material evidence to sustain his dark intimations against Gruson. None was forthcoming because none existed; Dulles had had his way with a whisper.

At length Sulzberger wrote Dulles that fairness to the Times and to Gruson demanded that the matter not be left in the air any longer. He had kept Gruson away from Guatemala “out of my respect for your judgment and Foster’s”; but he thought it time he was told the grounds for Dulles’s distrust of Gruson in better detail.

Dulles equivocated until at last Sulzberger was permitted to dispatch his nephew Cyrus Sulzberger, the Times‘s Chief European Correspondent, to inspect the agency’s Gruson dossier. Cyrus Sulzberger read the material and pronounced it worthless. Gruson moved off to Poland where he turned out to be an affliction to its rulers and a balm to their domestic opponents.

What is characteristic in this episode is Arthur Hays Sulzberger’s assurance to Allen Dulles of “my respect for your judgment and Foster’s.” It is a fundamental fact about journalism—and might even be a rule if it had the attention it deserves—that it is next to impossible to judge any public figure with the proper detachment once you begin calling him by his first name.

And yet the sense that one is Inside the Whale, or, for that matter, inside the minnow, is an addictive pursuit of journalism. Social access, not power, is the true aphrodisiac. One of the more valuable points of David Halberstam’s The Powers That Be is the regularity with which the publishers who are its subjects express their most fervent aspirations in the urge for comity and intimacy with official grandeur. The late Henry Luce is quoted as saying that, dammit, he didn’t like having his publications spoken of with so much scorn by the President of the United States.

A waterfront racketeer once remarked to me that you could get most reporters with a cup of coffee; and I have often thought it a testament to my own superior dignity that he spoke while in the process of getting me with a finnan had-die. This acquisition was so lasting that twenty-five years later, on the occasion of his last conviction, I sent him off to prison with a sentimental tribute. The difference between the Times and me is that while we each have our gazes fixed longingly on the social ladder, only the Times can savor the perfume of the higher rungs.

When Mr. Nixon was struggling upward, disdain for him was a consistent note in the editorial pages of the Times; but, once he was anointed, as former Washington Bureau Chief Max Frankel put it to Salisbury, “we bent over backwards to cultivate Nixon.” The instrument for this stubborn if hopeless campaign was a reporter whose availability for the task may explain a particular mystery about the Times, which is why it somehow seems staffed with so much more talent that it has any visible use for.

In the Daily Planet” (his nom déguisé for the Times), Professor Chris Argyris of Harvard has noticed, “there have been more reporters than stories.”

The reporters have therefore been placed in severe competition with each other, or ignored and shelved or given stories that have been covertly assigned to several people, or pulled into participating in the managerial secrecy, covert demotions, or hypocrisy identified as part of the living system.1

The fears, hostilities, and compulsions to get along that their unconscious sets loose in the managers and servants of the Times are perceived by Argyris as operating almost exclusively to its damage; but common sense suggests that some of these drives produce advantage in institutional convenience.

There is, for example, the case of Robert Semple, the Times‘s White House correspondent throughout the Nixon administration. “He was a button-down-collar kind of man, a registered Republican in a bureau largely peopled by Democrats,” Salisbury tells us, “and he was determined to do an objective job. His instincts were for the Nixon people, he mixed easily with them and it was no accident that he had been picked for what the editors of the Times knew was bound to be a difficult assignment.”

An oversupply of the talented can be a form of insurance against the arrival of the hour when a position has to change and no one is available with the sincerity that gives to the contortions of pliability the appearance of grace. The courting of Mr. Nixon demanded a suitor equipped with the properly instinctive susceptibility to Mr. Nixon, someone able honestly to like the Mitchells and the Ehrlichmans. The Times is not a disreputable newspaper and has no use for contract hit men; but it stands in more than occasional need of contract patters and soothers. And, since the Times has as high respect for the honor of its reporters as it has for itself, these missions cannot be managed with decency unless assignees are available who, when they Tom, as Billie Holiday said of Louis Armstrong, Tom from the heart.

The largest portion of Salisbury’s chronicle belongs to the individual qualms and interior quarrels that traveled with the Times on its journey toward publication of the Pentagon Papers, a grand remonstrance against the assumptions and pretensions of the executive branch of the federal system without precedent in its history. Salisbury, with excusable pride, assesses this act of dissent as a permanent change of direction rather than the brave, brief excursion that any day’s edition of the Times more persuasively argues that it was. He fixes the decision to publish the Pentagon Papers as the moment of

transition from “good gray Times,” repository of moral enlightenment, historical record and beyond-the-need-of-duty loyalty to the Establishment, to its new but still unacknowledged role of guardian of public interest, of living embodiment of the First Amendment principles bestowed upon the press by the founding fathers, of modern fulfillment of the rhetorical statement of Thomas Burke in 1790 that in Parliament sat three estates—the peers, the bishops and the commons but that “in the Reporter’s Gallery, yonder, there sits a Fourth Estate more important [far] than they all.”2

The rule for reading reporters even as splendid as Salisbury is to trust their facts and distrust their metaphors. Not the Times or a dozen Timeses could ever attain a consequence justifying identification as a Fourth Estate of the Realm; journalism might at best be called the Third-and-a-Quarter Estate, to signify its status as a quadruped with three feet mired in each of the other three estates and the fourth pawing the air above the ground.

Even after its leap with the Pentagon Papers, the Times‘s writ could never run even so far as that possessed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is at least empowered to react to those executives in actual command of affairs, but which depends upon the counter-reaction of those executives for whatever effect it has.

The history of journalism, as Salisbury shows himself acutely aware, abounds with examples of remarkable exposures that simply lay there unattended because the exposed had the wit to pay them no attention. Salisbury is too modest to give more than glancing reference to his own 1966 trip to Hanoi, an extraordinary achievement which enabled him to refute official lies about the Pentagon’s bombing campaign. But it had no effect on the course of history, because official Washington, with the exception of the hobbled and isolated Chairman Fulbright of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chose to act as though Salisbury had discovered nothing at all in Hanoi.

The Pentagon Papers would likely have been forgotten by now if Mr. Nixon had not moved the whole artillery of his Justice Department to suppress them. The reporting of Woodward and Bernstein did not accomplish Mr. Nixon’s downfall because it aroused the public, but because reading Woodward and Bernstein at breakfast inflamed Mr. Nixon with the apprehension that they knew more than they could have, and he rushed to the defensive aggressions that carried him to ruin. There would probably have been no result from those actions of the Times and the Washington Post that brought so much comfort to friends of the constitutional process if it had not been for the hysterical reaction of that process’s enemies.

  1. 1

    Argyris is James Bryant Conant Professor of Education and Organizational Behavior at Harvard and was retained by Arthur Ochs Sulzberger to diagnose and treat the collective neuroses of the Times in the late Sixties. The patient’s resistance finally drove the physician from the bedside with a rancor that inspired the composition of Behind the Front Page (Jossey-Bass, 1974), a rather spiteful tract disguised as a scientific monograph, whose values are: (1) as a demonstration that, whatever may be wrong with the standards of joint stock capitalism, the standards of the academic behavioral sciences are rather worse, and (2) as a record of a revealing and occasionally distressing series of pensees uttered by Sulzberger, Executive Editor A.M. Rosenthal, and Editorial Page Director John Oakes, all masked by random initials but all easily identifiable in the context of their remarks.

  2. 2

    Not, of course, Thomas Burke, but Edmund. And then, in all probability, not Edmund either. The OED scoured Burke without finding any reference to a Fourth Estate. The quotation cited by Salisbury first appeared and was credited to Burke in Carlyle’s Heroes and Hero Worship in 1841. The OED locates “a Fourth Estate far more important than they all” in a speech of Brougham’s in 1823 or 1824. Who can say whether Carlyle misremembered or whether, in his windy way, he chose to inflate the majesty of his source?

    This small and venial error earns its notice for better reason than any low impulse to niggle. Salisbury frequently and properly calls regretful attention to a number of instances when his brother editors showed themselves surprisingly ignorant about history, including the history of the Times itself.

    He singles out as one example James Reston’s lapse in referring to “Vladimir Lenin” as “Nikolai” and observes “(he made the common error of miscalling Lenin ‘Nikolai’ and the Times‘s copyreader did not correct him).”

    It seems odd that this most conscientious scholar of Soviet history should have forgotten that there never was a “Vladimir Lenin”; there was a Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, who when he began signing his manifestoes “N. Lenin” did not intend the initial to stand for any first name at all.

    But there is somewhere an imp of the absurd who trails the footsteps of us journalists through every painful step on our trudge toward intellectual respectability and, just when we feel that at least we can sniff at common errors, runs between our legs and trips us into an uncommon one. Still that mongrel cur may be our guardian angel. Any even vaguely secure sense of history might impel us to the suspicion that the present is very like the past, and that would disable us in our prime function, which is to see duststorms as cosmic cyclones, passing fashions as long-term tendencies, and minor incidents as revolutionary changes. He who remembers history is condemned to be an unserviceable makeup man.

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