All The News Fit To Print (Part I):
Structure and Background of the New York Times
By Edward S. Herman
Z magazine, April 1998
The New York Times's masthead logo, "All The News That's
Fit to Print," dates back to 1896, the first year of Ochs-Sulzberger
family control of the paper, and both the family control and arrogant
belief in the benevolence and superior judgment of the dominant
owners persist to this day. The 1997 Proxy Statement of The New
York Times Company explains the special voting rights that assure
family control in terms of the desire for "an independent
newspaper, entirely fearless, free of ulterior influence and tinselfishly
devoted to the public welfare."
The paper's independence, however, and the century-long accretion
of influence and wealth by the owners, has been contingent on
their defining public welfare in a manner acceptable to their
elite audience and advertisers. In the 1993 debate over the North
American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), for example, the Times
was aggressively supportive of the agreement, and solicited its
advertisers to participate in advertorials with a letter touting
the "central importance...of this important cause" and
the need to educate the public on NAFTA's merits, which polls
showed that most citizens failed to appreciate. As the paper regularly
takes positions on domestic and foreign policy issues within parameters
acceptable to business and political elites, it is evident that
the owners have failed to escape class, if not eelfish, interests
in defining public welfare and what's fit to print.
In debates within the range of elite opinion, moreover, the
Times has not been "fearless," even in the face of gross
outrages against law, morality, and the general interest. During
the McCarthy era, for example, the management buckled under to
the Eastland Committee by firing former communist employees, who
spoke freely to management but would not inform on others, and
more generally it failed to oppose the witch hunt with vigor and
on the basis of principle. An editorial of August 6, 1948, attacking
the use of the Fifth Amendment before the House Committee on Unamerican
Activities, was written by the publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger.
Among other cases, the paper did not oppose the Vietnam War
till late in the game, and then on grounds of unwinnability and
excessive cost to us; it failed to oppose the U.S. sponsorship
of a system of National Security States in Latin America, or the
Central America wars, and protected these murderous enterprises
by eye aversion and biased reporting. Even Reagan's "supply
side economics" was treated gently by the editors ("No
one else has yet offered an option half so grand for dealing with
stagflation," ea., March 17, 1981), and the paper's top reporter,
James Reston, stated, falsely, that Reaganomics involved "a
serious attempt...to spread the sacrifices equally among all segments
of society" (February 22, 1981). The Times played a supportive
propaganda role in the huge Carter-Reagan era military buildup
to contest the inflated Soviet Threat; and its highly favorable
review of The Bell Curve, and more recent extensive publicity
given the Thernstroms, have been notable contributions to the
ongoing assault on affirmative action.
The dominant owners of The New York Times Company-a holding
company-control a large and complex business organization, which
had 1997 revenues of $2.9 billion and earnings of $262 million.
Among its 50 or more subsidiaries, the Times Company owns 21 newspapers
in addition to the New York Times and Boston Globe, 8 TV and 2
radio stations, various electronic and other news and distribution
services, a magazine group with a specialty in golf, forest products
companies, and 50 percent ownership of the International Herald
Tribune, with the Washington Post owning the balance.
The holding company's Class A stock is listed on the New York
Stock Exchange and traded at about $65 per share in February 1998.
The Sulzberger family owns 17.5 million shares of the 97.6 million
Class A shares outstanding, or 18 percent; but it owns at least
87 percent of the 425,000 Class B shares, which are entitled to
elect a majority (nine) of the 14 directors. The value of the
Sulzberger family holdings in February 1998 aniounted to $1.2
billion. In 1997, family members Arthur Ochs Sulzberger and Arthur
Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. also drew compensation from the company in
salaries, bonuses, and options, totaling $1.5 million and $1 million,
These owners regularly associate with other rich and powerful
people, who are anxious to cultivate the acquaintance of those
who control the country's most influential newspaper. Such contacts
occur on the board of the holding company, which includes business
leaders drawn from IBM, First Boston (a major investment bank),
the Mercantile Bank of Kansas City, Bristol-Myers Squibb (drugs),
Phelps Dodge (copper), Metropolitan Life, and other corporations.
The company also has a $200 million line of credit with a group
of commercial banks, and periodically uses investment banks to
underwrite its bonds and notes and help it buy and sell properties.
These financiers and business executives press for a focus on
the bottom line, and they would not be pleased if the Times took
positions hostile to the interests of the corporate community
(which, contrary to right-wing mythology, the paper does not do).
Increasing Hegemony of Advertisers
Back in the 1970s, the Times was stumbling economically, profits
virtually disappeared, and its stock price fell from $53 in 1968
to $15 in 1976. In an article "Behind The Profit Squeeze
At The New York Times" (August 30, 1976), Business Week assailed
the management for lethargy, and because it "has also slid
precipitously to the left and has become stridently anti-business
in tone, ignoring the fact that the Times itself is a business-and
one with very serious problems." When this article appeared,
measures had already been taken to rectify the paper's business
shortcomings and its supposedly "left" tendency as well.
A. M. Rosenthal, a close friend of William Buckley, Jr. (who referred
to Rosenthal as "a terrific anticommunist"), and a self-described
"bleeding-heart conservative" (the search for that heart
remains a challenge to independent investigators after 25 years),
was installed as executive editor. Editor John Oakes was ousted,
the editorial board was restructured, with the more conservative
Roger Starr and Walter Goodman replacing Herbert Mitgang and Fred
Hechinger, and control over all aspects of the paper was more
centralized. Times policy shifted to the right, the paper was
reoriented toward softer and more advertiser friendly news, and
the common "policy" root of news, editorials, and book
reviews became more conspicuous. Rosenthal established a Product
Committee, and openly emulated Clay Felker's New York magazine's
pioneering of a news product featuring gossip on the shows, restaurants,
discos, attire, decor, and other cultural habits of the upwardly
mobile, attractive to fashion trade and other advertisers. More
and more articles were on the Beautiful People living well (e.g.,
"Living Well Is Still The Best Revenge," celebrating
the de La Rentas, December 21, 1980), and fashion designers (e.g.,
"The Business of Being Ralph Lauren," NYT Magazine,
September 18, 1983), and entire sections of the paper were allocated
to Men's (or Women's) Clothing, House & Home, Food and Dining,
and Style. On February 26, 1998, the Times introduced a new section
entitled "Circuits," which will cover "the personal
side of digital technology," and hopefully will attract some
of the ad dollars going to Wired and Electronic Media.
With the advertising recession of 1991, the pace of integration
of advertising and editorial was stepped up, with regular supplements
to the magazine on "Fashions of the Times," and with
fashion news such as the shortening of women's skirts beginning
to make the front page. On March 23, 1993, the Sunday Magazine
featured the big names of fashion-Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren,
Donna Karan, Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, et al-with their photos
and sample product lines, in a purported news article. Later in
1993, an entire issue of the magazine was devoted to fashion,
and in the paper's own Fall 1993 advertising supplement, an A&S
department store ad had printed on it "All the fashion news
that's fit to print," with the A&S logo printed right
below this. That is, the Times had loaned its own advertising
logo, supposedly signifying journalistic integrity, to an ad purchaser.
Such attention to advertisers was paralleled by a shift of
news interest to the suburbs and other locales in the New York
area with affluent householders, and away from the Bronx, Brooklyn,
Queens, and Staten Island. It also meant lightening up on investigative
reporting that would threaten local real estate and developer
interests, although this was not new. Robert Caro, in his The
Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Downfall of New York (1974),
assailed the Times for its uncritical support of this political
czar, whose ruthless infrastructure development "very nearly
destroyed New York's physical fiber" (John Hess). Caro says
that the Times "fell down on its knees before him, and stayed
there year after year." Writing in 1985, Hess says that "Moses
is long gone...yet the Times enthusiastically supports billion
dollar projects that will strangle its own neighborhood."
The firing of Sidney Schanberg from his metropolitan column beat
in 1986 was another clear signal that harsh criticism of local
real estate developers and associated political interests was
no longer acceptable to the paper.
For advertisers, serious consumer reporting is "anti-business,"
and it went into decline in the 1970s and after. Ralph Nader asserted
in 1993 that Rosenthal "did more to damage consumer causes
than any other person in the United States," as the Times's
lead in downgrading consumer issues was followed by the Washington
Post and then by the rest of the press. Nader says that more than
a dozen Times reporters complained to him that they were pushed
away from "hot-potato areas into soft consumer advice or
other non-consumer assignments." The Times was late on many
key business stories, like the S&L scandals, the Bank of Credit
and Commerce International case, the mid-1980s phony liability
crisis contrived by the insurance industry, the misrepresentations
of the Bush Task Force on Regulatory Relief, and others. Reporters
told Nader that "New York doesn't like these stories,"
or that they must get company responses to charges against them-and
as Nader notes, the companies learned "simply not to return
calls, knowing that that tactic would block the story deadline.
These companies know about Rosenthal too."
Other Elite Connections
Times officials and reporters have other (nonbusiness) ties
to the elite that make a class and establishment bias inevitable
and natural. In his gentle history of the Times, Without Fear
or Favor, veteran Times reporter Harrison Salisbury points out
that the paper was dominated in the post World War II era by men
"of the same social and geographic circle,..[who] had gone,
by and large, to the same schools, Groton, again and again, Groton;
they had married into each others families; they were Yale and
Harvard and Princeton," etc. They were lawyers, bankers,
businesspeople and journalists; and many were notables in the
CIA and other parts of the government. These friends had "a
common view of the world, the role of the United States, the nature
of the communist peril."
Salisbury devotes many pages to the CIA-Times connection,
questioning but not disproving the claim by Carl Bernstein in
Rolling Stone in 1977 that Cyrus Sulzberger, the Times's long-time
chief European correspondent, was a knowing CIA "asset,"
and that the paper gave cover to some ten CIA agents from 1950-1966.
Salisbury supplies an impressive list of CIA people-Allen Dulles,
James Angleton, Frank Wisner, Kim Roosevelt, Richard Helms, and
others, who were good friends of, and wined, dined, and vacationed
with, a large array of Times officials and reporters. He acknowledges
that in the early years there had been a "relationship of
cooperation between The Times and the Agency, a relationship of
trust betwen the CIA and Times correspondents,.." (quoting
CIA official Cord Meyer) and that friendly connections persisted
thereafter. When the Times published a series on the CIA in 1966,
it gave a draft to former CIA chief John McCone for prior review,
an action that Salisbury felt entirely without significance, as
McCone's reactions could be accepted or ignored by the paper.
But Salisbury misses the possibility that the willingness to bring
McCone into the editorial process might reflect the limited framework
and non-threatening character of the Times's effort.
The Times-CIA relationship, and its complexity, was displayed
in 1954, when CIA head Allen Dulles persuaded Arthur Hays Sulzberger
to keep reporter Sidney Gruson out of Guatemala, as the U.S. was
organizing the overthrow of the Arbenz government. Gruson, although
a Cold Warrior and strongly supportive of U.S. policy, was not
a straight propagandist, so Dulles claimed to possess derogatory
information on him, and he was kept away. But Sulzberger kept
pressing Dulles for evidence supporting his charges against Gruson,
and was extremely annoyed when it was never provided, and he realized
he had been used by the CIA to fine-tune a propaganda effort.
(The Times was outrageously biased in its coverage of Guatemala
in 1953-1954-and later-but not quite enough to suit the CIA.)
The Times today remains protective of the CIA, but this is
almost surely a result of its broader support of U.S. foreign
policy rather than any specific links to the CIA, which it will,
on occasion, slap on the wrist for demonstrated misbehavior (e.g.,
ea., "The CIA's Men in Iraq," May 13, 1997).
Inside Information, Revolving Doors, and Cooptation
Whatever the precise nature of the Times link with the CIA
and other govemment agencies, the friendships and common understandings
among these Cold Warriors and members of an economic, social,
and political elite have made for a built-in lack of scepticism
and critical and investigative zeal on the part of the editors
and leading reporters. These press recipients of sometimes privileged
infommation from friends have not been inclined to treat the suppliers
without favor. Max Frankel, longtime editor and executive editor
after Rosenthal, became extraordinarily close to Henry Kissinger
in the Nixon years, and Robert Anson notes that Kissinger "put
that intimacy to good use, employing Frankel's trust to delay
stories...; boost his boss...; and, on more than a few occasions-the
Administration's supposed unconcem about Marxist Salvadore Allende
being a prime example-spread flatout falsehoods. "
James Reston, the Times's most famous reporter, was on close
terms with a string of presidents and secretaries of state, but
in the strange mores of U.S. journalism, the resultant compromised
character of his reporting did not diminish his professional standing.
Bruce Cumings, writing about Secretary of State Dean Acheson in
1950, states that "Acheson vented his ideas through our newspaper
of record, James Reston's lips moving but Dean Acheson speaking."
And Reston spoke of his reliance on the "compulsory plagiarism"
of "well-infommed officials," and he even once titled
one of his articles "By Henry Kissinger With James Reston."
As the Reston story suggests, the most common pattern of serving
the political establishment is not by directly telling lies, but
rather by omission, and by letting officials tell lies that remain
uncorrected. Salisbury describes the intemal debate over how far
the paper should go in accommodating propaganda, the upshot of
which was that the Times would "leave things out of the paper,"
or would publish statements known to be false if U.S. officials
"were willing to take responsibility for their statements."
What the Times would not do is publish unattributed lies. This
is the high principle underlying news fit to print.
The Times's close relationship with business and government
has also been reflected in a revolving door of personnel. Most
notable were Leslie Gelb's moves, from director of policy planning
at the Pentagon (1965-68) to the Times, then to policy planning
at the U.S. State Department (1977-79), and then back to the Times
as diplomatic correspondent, Op Ed column editor, and foreign
affairs correspondent(1981-93), and then on to head the Council
on Foreign Relations, the most important U.S. private organization
of foreign policy elites, with ties to both business and the CIA
and State Department. Another notable trip was of Richard Burt,
the Times's Pentagon correspondent during key Cold War years (197483),
who moved into the Reagan State Department in 1983, where he quickly
displayed openly the ultraCold War bias that was ill-concealed
in his work as a Times reporter. Roger Starr's move from the construction
business to New York City Housing Commissioner to the editorial
board was an important reflection of the Times's new look in the
The Times has attracted many quality reporters over the years.
But power at the paper still flows down from the top, affecting
hiring, firing, promotion, assignments, and what reporters can
do on particular assignments. As noted regarding consumer reporting,
if "New York" (the editors, reflecting Times policy)
doesn't like tough stories, reporters will leam to avoid them,
or leave the paper, and many good and principled ones have left.
If writers are too hard hitting in criticizing theatrical fiascos
that represent heavy investments, as Richard Eder was in the 1980s,
or on local developer abuses, as Schanberg was, they are eased
out. In writing on topics on which the Times has an ideological
position and "policy," like the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict, or Russia and its "reform" process, or health
care refomm and the Social Security "crisis," the reporters
all toe a party line, which either comes naturally to them or
to which they adapt. Just as Richard Burt was hired in the 1970s
to provide the proper accelerated Cold War thrust in Pentagon
reporting, so during the Central American wars of the 1980s, the
Times deliberately hired and fired to achieve a policy line that
accommodated the Reagan-Bush support of contra terrorism and the
violent regimes of El Salvador and Guatemala. The firing of Raymond
Bonner and installation of Shirley Christian, James LeMoyne, Mark
Uhlig, Bernard Trainor, Lydia Chavez, and Warren Hoge assured
this apologetic service.
In short, reporters are underlings, and in an establishment
paper like the Times they will report within an establishment
framework or leave. The Times is without question an establishment
newspaper; as Salisbury says of Max Frankel, "The last thing
that would have entered his mind would be to hassle the American
Establishment of which he was so proud to be a part." What
this means, however, is that the paper is not "without fear
or favor"-rather, it favors the establishment, and fears
those who threaten it. z
A footnoted version of this article is available from the
author for $2:
2300 Steinberg-Dietrich Hall, University of Pennsylvania,
Philadelphia, PA 19104.
Control and Propaganda