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.
These two great cases, shine though they still do, have by now taken their place not as lasting revolutions but as only aberrations from the normalities of the interchange between the press and the politician.
On the night the Times commenced publication of the Pentagon Papers, Neil Sheehan, who had obtained them, and the team that had assisted him in their editing had an exhausted celebratory dinner at an Italian restaurant near the New York Hilton Hotel.
“Over a glass of chianti,” Salisbury reports, one of them asked,
“Well, what have we learned from all this?”
To which [Hedrick] Smith replied, “I’ve learned that never again will I trust any source in the government.”
There was no Carlyle at hand to rejoin, “By God, you’d better,” and in his absence, all glasses were raised in acknowledgment of the attainment of a permanent new wisdom. Within four years, while the courage of such reporters remained intact, the suspicion had nevertheless dissolved into the need to trust. Nature and habit once again took their place in the prompter’s box by January, 1975, when the publisher of the Times and all his captains were Mr. Ford’s guests at luncheon in the second-floor family dining room of the White House.
A president was extending his fullest ceremonial courtesies to the Times for the first occasion since the Pentagon Papers, where it had taken a dazzling first, and since Watergate, where it had registered an honorable second. The Times had proved its courage by challenging government, and it had intimated its arrival at a sense of reality by manifesting signs of beginning to distrust government.
Salisbury reconstructs Mr. Ford’s luncheon for the Times as “an amiable occasion” in which “nothing of import was said by Ford until [executive editor A.M.] Rosenthal raised the question of the Rockefeller commission to investigate the CIA.”
Ford said that the charter of the commission and its membership had been done carefully to ensure that it stayed within the parameters of domestic CIA operations. He didn’t want the commission getting into foreign operations because they were “a cesspool.” Revelations, he said, “will ruin the US image around the world,” ruin the reputation of every President since Truman and shock the American public. These operations included everything, even assassinations of foreign leaders.
Then, said one of the Timesmen, Mr. President, you oppose a congressional inquiry into the CIA. Not at all, Mr. Ford rejoined, I not only do not oppose it but I would be in favor of a joint congressional inquiry…. Ford wound up the luncheon with a rather conventional plea for the $300 million he had asked of Congress to wind down Cambodia, a final appropriation which he was not to get.
“The Timesmen emerged from the White House in a state of shock,” which quickly passed to puzzlement about what the president had wanted them to do with the luridities he had served up with the main course. Tom Wicker was certain Ford expected them to use the information, whatever his reasons. “He had been around Washington too long not to understand what he was doing.” James Reston and editorial page editor John Oakes “strongly opposed publication,” because “they believed that the President considered the conversation off the record, otherwise he would not have spoken so freely and easily.”
These discussions concluded with the decision to treat the president’s assertions as a matter so confidential that it could not be revealed even to Seymour Hersh, the staff investigative reporter then assigned to pursue the CIA story. The terms of this argument over using Ford’s statements may be more strikingly descriptive of its participants’ set of mind than of its result.
Salisbury nowhere suggests that any of them wondered aloud about the authenticity of this presidential witness. Yet presidents had attested to the benignity of the CIA for forty years and been taken on faith; now a president had denounced the CIA for only vaguely specified malignities and been at once also taken on faith.
Here was a company all too familiar with the chimeras that unsettle the reason of presidents. Reston, Frankel, and Wicker had suffered the Insider’s privilege of listening to Mr. Johnson’s private ravings and all present had enjoyed the citizen’s privilege of reading Mr. Nixon’s. And yet no memory of other presidents intruded to challenge their automatic confidence in this president’s statements. Mr. Ford spoke of multiple assassinations, and no one seems to have thought to request the identity of a single corpse. Every rudiment of craft was suspended and every habit of doubt yielded to the governing habit of accepting Authority as authoritative.
Whether as host or guest, the journalist looks across the luncheon table at the official dignitary with the unalterable anxiety to please that was defined by then CIA director William Colby the day after he lunched with Arthur Ochs Sulzberger and had been assured that the Times would keep the secret of the Glomar Explorer.
“Sulzberger,” Colby reported, “…was great. He was delighted to be trusted.” The description seems incomplete. Delighted to be trusted, of course, but also desperate to trust, and the latter craving impels its victim toward the deeper pit.3
We swallowed New York [Magazine]. I’ll steal any idea from anybody if it’s not nailed down.
—Executive Editor A.M. Rosenthal
There has been a change in the openness of the faith of the publishers of the Times in their fellow creatures, although it has not been the contraction that Salisbury suggests but the expansion represented by the rise of A.M. Rosenthal, an exemplary proof that the Jews of 1848 have at last come to trust the Jews of 1896. While still feeling safe with the appointed order, they have come to feel almost as safe with that tumult of cousins in the spiritual tradition who were alien strangers in the flesh, and who now are no longer to be feared as carriers of frequent social disorder or, even more, of frequent social embarrassment.
The insecurities of being Jewish also help to explain the odd and rather touching diffidence of tone in the official Times voice, whose by now almost universally acknowledged authority could justify the most magisterial ring. To be Jewish has meant to walk carefully, and with good reason.4
The proprietors bore their Jewish identity without shame; but every peril of an alien identity so unsettled them that their concern to avoid offense in their pages was never more lively than when they were guarding against a trace of the scents and echoes of the shtetl. As is life’s custom, those Jews born well-off imposed the largest portion of what they perceived as a necessary sacrifice of dignity to reputation on the Jews born poor. Thus Abraham H. Raskin—the labor reporter revered by the army of his admirers as “Abe”—signed his dispatches A.H. Raskin, and Meyer C. Handler was always M.C. Handler.
A Max and even a Murray or a Sydney could get clearance for his given name; there was once an Irving, although he was confined to Jewish communal affairs. But with the notable exception of the Times senior city reporter and historian Meyer Berger, who came thus named from the Standard News Association, a Meyer or an Abraham could only announce himself from the decent obscurity of his initials, because the absolute intransigence of those names was a proclamation that, if one was not stiff-necked oneself, one’s parents had been unbendingly so.
And so Abe Rosenthal has traveled his steep and flinty road to look down now from his great eminence unchangeably as A.M. Rosenthal. His whole career is an achieved triumph of the slights and snubs of masters and social betters fearful that his dubious first name and inadequately contained demeanor might get them snubbed in turn.
When he was the Times’s stringer at City College of New York, his dignity suffered its first wound with the discovery that the Columbia stringer had been allotted a New York City Police press card and he hadn’t. But then, Columbia was the college of the Jews of 1848 and City was the college of the Jews of 1896. Rosenthal went on to serve the Times for ten years before getting the overseas assignment that, by then, had become an object of almost sick longing for him. When his first big chance came, in 1948, he had lost it, because his supervisors thought him lacking in suitable graces.
Salisbury’s portrait of the Times ends just as Gay Talese’s does in The Kingdom and the Power with a picture of Rosenthal at one of those moments when the ache of his scars has expelled all pleasure from his conquests. Something in Rosenthal—perhaps the mind that Salisbury judges to be “touched much more by emotions than by concepts”—propels him into dominance over all these histories. His claim upon our interest and even our sympathies, confused though those must inescapably be, is larger than that possessed by personages for whom it would be far pleasanter to work.
Chris Argyris seems to have liked Rosenthal better than anyone else he met while attempting to carry out Arthur Ochs Sulzberger’s commission to train the Times’s executives in managerial skills and procedures—the same ones Argyris seems unwarrantedly proud of having learned and taught when he examined the techniques of such striking examples of bureaucratic ineptitude as the National Institute of Health and the Defense Department’s procurement section.
Argyris’s account in Behind the Front Page of his failed effort at the Times is a work of mean and self-important spirit; but it does us the service of showing a Rosenthal whose notorious temper has softened into a winningly diplomatic mixture of respect for a bumptious inquisitor and concern for the resentment Argyris’s intrusions had aroused in his subordinates.
How are we to explain this unexpected revelation of a capacity to bear fools gladly in someone only too often quick to impatience with wise men? Does Rosenthal’s almost silken solicitude for Argyris’s pretensions arise from the servant’s fidelity to the wishes of his master, deluded or otherwise, or from the provincial’s veneration of heraldic dignities like the James Bryant Conant Chair of Education and Organizational Behavior of Harvard University?
From both sources, you finally decide: it is sad how frequently Rosenthal gets condemned as a tyrant when he can never be much more than a steward. It is painful to think of the ordeal of his being mandated to supervise an explanation of the world every day with no more qualification than we describe when we say that Rosenthal remains a brilliant journalist. This state of preservation is possible only because he has never changed the mold of the Young Man from the Provinces.
The province from which Rosenthal made his way was the Amalgamated Houses in the Bronx, where his father settled after arriving from Canada and finding work as a house painter. This was a commune even more isolated from great affairs than Zebulon, North Carolina, and Philadelphia, Mississippi, where his two predecessors as managing editor of the Times respectively passed their country childhoods.
Salisbury is delicate about Rosenthal’s nurturing, but the cast implied is unmistakable. The Amalgamated Houses were a hive of those agitational impulses in the Jews of 1896 that made the Jews of 1848 so uneasy. When A.M. Rosenthal was a boy, their dominant hum and buzz were Stalinist. I had not known before Salisbury told me that A.M. Rosenthal was the late Ruth Watt’s brother. When I knew Ruth Rosenthal Watt, she was on the National Executive Committee of the Young Communist League and a very proud young tree in that Hunter College grove of radical activists of which Bella Abzug seems to be most unfortunately the last oak still standing.
Ruth Rosenthal’s Bolshevism was accompanied by the same fierceness of temperament that her brother displays in his allegiance to the hardly less abstruse dictates of the code of objectivity in journalism. Nevertheless, she exerted the same not entirely explicable appeal that he somehow manages to exert; and even those of us who had suffered the lash of her tongue missed her greatly when she died.
Rosenthal appears to be anything but ashamed of his boyhood in the communist ambiance. About Ruth’s husband George Watt, a Young Communist who fought in the Lincoln Brigade, he told Salisbury, “He was my hero.” And he has repeatedly evoked the unselfishness of his father’s unionism and his sister’s anti-fascism in rebuking contrast to what affronts him, such as the self-indulgence of student radicals, militant females, discontented blacks, advocacy journalists, newspaper shop stewards, and like outrages to his sense of the proprieties and executive conveniences.
There have been few Edens that were not weedier than the exile remembers them as being, but there are sound reasons for pride and pleasure in the recollection of having grown up in one of those radical families whose closeness and mutual support could so often be a reproach to parents who imagined themselves fitter representatives of church and country.
Rosenthal maintained a certain distance from his sister’s creed even as a schoolboy and he rejected it entirely while in college, not, we may be sure, because he was an opportunist but because he was sharp enough to see through Stalin and spirited enough to break away from a confining provincial atmosphere. And yet years of breaking away from any atmosphere leave their mark upon the lungs, and the characters of American Stalinism and of A.M. Rosenthal seem curiously alike in their inextricable mixture of vices and virtues.
A virtue of American Stalinism was its appreciation of the duty to be engaged; the concomitant vice was the misapprehension that you had arrived at the final conflict when you were only carrying a placard. A virtue was a tenderness that drew you closest to Stalin in the image of those photographs that showed him accepting the homage of a flower from a little girl; a vice was a sentimentality quick to weep and as quick to forget what you had wept about. A virtue was fraternity; a vice was the outsized rage that consumed you with the discovery that some comrade did not think just the way you did. A virtue was the capacity to love, a vice the exaggerated recoil at every hint of the rejection of love.
A virtue was a boundless and simple faith in the potentialities of ordinary Americans; a concomitant vice was a certain coarseness of taste, an insistence that what the people seemed to want was what it was right to want. American Stalinism could not have produced so many persons skillful at the production of trash if it had not made an idol of the public taste that wanted so much trash.
All these are virtues and vices of A.M. Rosenthal and they shine most movingly and pitifully in his boast that, when he encumbered the Times with the bleak and chilling section it calls “Home” and the dead section it calls “Living,” he had shown his brilliance by stealing from New York magazine. There is an awful pathos in hearing a voice that can rail against the self-indulgence of the rebellious and then swell with pride and satisfaction at the discovery of a formula designed to cater to the self-indulgence of the upwardly mobile. But then it was the vice and virtue of the Communist Party USA to revere the wisdom of the public about its wants to such a degree as to lose all taste for what might be more worth wanting. The inevitable point of arrival for American Stalinism is not the Winter Palace but Bloomingdale’s.
But Rosenthal’s lurch into the New New York Times was also one in which a special vulgarity of taste responded to necessities felt by his proprietor. The family that publishes the Times has historically cared more for the paper’s stature than for its profits. Nonetheless, by the middle of the Seventies, the narrowing of the revenue balance had become a genuine threat to that stature. Salisbury remembers that a colleague told Rosenthal that “he would be the first managing editor of the Times whose most serious problem would be economic.” Costs were rising, circulation and advertising were at a plateau, and this pinching of profits threatened curtailment of a news budget whose size and indifference to concerns of cost were its properest pride.
“Home” and “Living” are responses to these pressures; they identify the truly profound change in an institution whose interior quarrels in the Sixties involved the means of improving its quality and whose anxieties in the Seventies were all turned to the emergent necessity of maintaining its marketability.
The appointed serving was catered by A.M. Rosenthal but it was ordered by Arthur Ochs Sulzberger. In the histories of journalism, the publisher is the final protagonist, and everyone around him, however more interesting, is only a fundamentally helpless attendant. When publishers are outrageous, the tawdriest chronicler is somehow fun to read; when publishers are normal and decent, it takes a considerable artist to make his annals any better than improving.
Arthur Ochs Sulzberger seems pleasantly normal and agreeably decent. Still he is master and Rosenthal is his servant; and the publisher’s wishes are always, in the end, commands. Argyris provides us with the transcript of a conversation between John Oakes and Rosenthal, in which the Executive Editor arraigns the Editorial Director for the shrillness and stridency of his editorials and the Editorial Director blames the Executive Editor for “these bastards” on the news staff who inject too much “subjective interpretation” into their stories.
This exchange of accusations could hardly have happened if Sulzberger had not been troubled by complaints of a whiff of leftism in his pages; and, in their dispute over whose guilt for this taint was the greater, the inflections of Oakes and Rosenthal do not somehow seem as free of the consciousness of the tape recorder beside them as men this proud ought to be.
At one of Argyris’s seminars, Rosenthal told Sulzberger that “he had been terribly concerned that the paper, in the last few years, had gone toward the left politically.”
The editorial page has gone toward the left; the columnists are liberal to liberal left; and many of the bright reporters have come out of an atmosphere of advocacy. All of us—something has happened…I felt that my job was to pull it back to center. This paper should not be politically discernible.
“There was, I felt, an editorial bias that was growing,” he recently told Leonard Silk, the Times’s economic columnist. “We were not anti-business, but indeed we were perceived to be…. I think we are far more acceptable today. It is not just the editorial page, but bringing out Business Day…. But it takes a terribly long time to change people’s image of you…. We’re more open-minded. We don’t start with the assumption that something is wrong with business.
“I guess I’m pretty responsible for the change. I look at things as a businessman. I don’t like taxes any more than anyone else and I’ll do my best to see that the Times pays the least possible taxes.”5
Maturity is the revelation of who you really are; and you are perhaps surprised to find how like your grandfather you are and how pleased to be accepted as someone who gives no trouble. The Times is again what Adolph Ochs wanted it to be, the seeker after, or anyway the pretender to, enlightenment without disturbance.
You can search the “Living” section and not learn measurably more about the lives of most citizens of New York than you can find out about the lives of most citizens of the Soviet Union in the pages of Sputnik. But no matter: the new sections comfort the readers the Times most respects and attract the advertisers that assure the stability of its revenues. They help make the Times again what it was.6
To say that is to hear the echo of the voice of Merton Densher reminding us that we cannot again be what we were. Absurd though it sounds to say so, what the Times used to be was not unlike a holy order. The growth of the reporter is a struggle toward autonomy; the success of the editor lies in the suppression of that struggle.
The Times achieved a balance of these tensions with a process of initiation and ultimate ordination quite similar to the monastic rule. One entered as a novice without reference to any prior life experience. Neil Sheehan was hired after having done much more than prove himself as a wire service reporter in Vietnam; once at the Times, he was sent to the subway station in Times Square to question the passers-through for a survey of how many New Yorkers know the location of Grant’s Tomb. The novitiate was almost designedly a purifying rite of humiliation.
And yet the rule no longer holds, because the sanctity of the order is no longer taken for granted. Sheehan went over the wall a while ago, only one of a roster of defectors that includes Halberstam, Talese, J. Anthony Lukas, Seymour Hersh, and others less conspicuous but not markedly inferior in promise. This alarming exodus is often blamed on Rosenthal; but a more generous and probably sounder explanation might be found in the crisis of faith that has afflicted all the old religious disciplines and made ours the age of the abandoned vocation.
The recurring definition of the Times, as of so many of our institutions, is in the image of a formidable church building that houses a dead faith; and A.M. Rosenthal, having begun among the more obscure of the lay brothers, arrived at the reward and the punishment of becoming abbot of the order just when the cloisters were emptying.
September 25, 1980
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. ↩
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? ↩
Salisbury may be more casual than he ought to be in passing dismissal of Mr. Ford’s “rather conventional plea for the $300 million he had asked of Congress to wind down Cambodia.” For, if he failed to convince the Congress, he did succeed in convincing the Times, whose editorials, with a few rather conventional admonitions to our Indochinese clients to mend their ways, generally supported the president’s requests for increased military assistance to Saigon and Phnom Penh even while Sydney Schanberg, its man in Cambodia, was making it brilliantly and irrefutably clear that the game was already up. Mr. Ford may have been languid when he turned to the subject at lunch but he was unambiguous; and the Times seems to have done pretty much what he wanted in this one case when it was sure what he wanted. ↩
Salisbury gives us all we need to appreciate how sound this caution was with the information that, when it was revealed that Adolph S. Ochs had established a family trust fund to escape the death duties that might have cost his heirs their control of the Times, Franklin D. Roosevelt expressed his outrage by calling this device a “dirty Jewish trick.” ↩
Quoted in The American Establishment, by Leonard and Michael Silk (Basic Books, 1980). ↩
Some dissatisfaction has to tinge the properest reverence for what the Times was before it began conveying those drilling rights to press agents that have lately done so much to clutter its landscape. In the early Sixties when assurance of its affluence confined its worries to preserving and increasing its eminence, then Managing Editor Turner Catledge summarized his own dissatisfaction by asking, “Why are we always surprised?” ↩