Duke University Alumni Magazine

The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times

By Susan E. Tifft '73 and Alex S. Jones. Little Brown, 1999. 780 pages. $29.95.

an a minor principality of journalism--a county-seat, family-owned daily, The Anniston Star--claim affinity with the emperor of world newspapers, The New York Times?

The monarchy that has governed the Times doesn't mind, for one of the family's abiding values is to take the paper seriously, but not themselves. I first experienced this trait in the fall of l967, when my class of Nieman Fellows at Harvard visited some of New York's great publishing houses and enjoyed a dinner at the Times. Exiting the elevator on the 14th floor, I introduced myself to the publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, saying, "Mr. Sulzberger, we're in the same kind of family business. I guess one day soon, I'll have the same title you have. But there's one difference. Your newspaper is so much taller." He chuckled at my measurement of the vast difference in scale, treated me as an equal, and on several occasions went out of his way to show me kindness.

Thanks to Susan Tifft and Alex Jones, we now know much more about "Punch" Sulzberger, his son and successor, Arthur Jr., and all the four generations who built and have guided the paper--both affairs and other human frailties, and steely commitment to principle. After seven years of exhaustive research, Tifft and Jones--who share the Eugene Patterson Professorship at the Sanford Institute's DeWitt Wallace Center for Communications and Journalism--patiently crafted a seamless masterpiece, The Trust, a 780-page saga of the Times' ruling family.

Their epic work begins with Adolph Ochs' journey from Chattanooga to New York in 1896--around the same time when my family's journalistic saga began. Ochs, a self-confident, young Jewish man, bought a failing newspaper, rejected the standard formula of sensation-mongering, and turned fairness and objectivity into a successful marketing strategy. My grandfather, Thomas Wilburn Ayers, moved his medical practice and weekly newspaper, The Republican, to the bustling New South manufacturing town of Anniston and soon bought the town's original newspaper, The Daily Hot Blast.

Adolph Ochs' path from the economically fragile Chattanooga Times to publishing success in competitive New York was perilous. He once pledged controlling stock for a $150,000 loan --fortunately his formula, "All the news fit to print," succeeded. The quality, profitability, and influence of the Times spiraled upward.

After Ochs' death, family solidarity was maintained by his daughter Iphigene, who became the matriarch during the regimes of her handsome husband, Arthur Hays Sulzberger; their son, Punch; and now Punch's son, Arthur Jr. Along the way, the family survived wars, strikes, and recessions, and has been tested in confrontations with presidents. The most serious of these tests came from Punch's courage in publishing the truth about the Vietnam War in the Pentagon Papers. Punch faced cold fury from the Nixon White House, brushed off attorneys who warned he was putting the paper at risk, and made his decision with what the authors describe as another-day-at-the-office diffidence. It was an act taken in the family tradition of tough-minded idealism.

Ochs' contemporary, Grandfather Ayers, chose a different path. In 1901, he sold his paper and practice to become the first Southern Baptist medical missionary in China, arriving by oxcart in a small county in Shandong Province in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion. His son, my father, the late Harry M. Ayers, spent only the first few years of Grandfather's twenty-five-year tour in a China wracked by poverty, warlords, and civil wars. Back home, Dad and a friend bought The Hot Blast and, in 1912, Dad combined it with The Evening Star. Surely it was Grandfather's example and the China experience that stamped the paper with its liberal, internationalist worldview, a philosophy that The Anniston Star continues to share with the much larger Times.

The papers share bonds of pragmatic idealism as well. Ironically, it was the same idealistic virtues Ochs took to New York that doomed the family's cornerstone paper, The Chattanooga Times. Tifft and Jones touch on this story, which would shake any liberal-minded, quality-conscious Southern publisher with the queasy sensation of danger narrowly averted. The Chattanooga Times was run by Punch's bright, warm, funny, and principled sister, Ruth Holmberg. Ruth and her family were cursed with a competition that the Star narrowly avoided: The Chattanooga Free-Press, launched in 1933 by Roy MacDonald to promote his grocery chain. MacDonald was the kind of man who could proclaim proudly, "I am against progress in all its forms." While the Times hewed to the classic role of government watchdog and took stands of high-minded liberalism on racial questions, "Mr. Roy" pandered to readers' prejudices, ducked local controversies, filled the paper with civic-club speeches and birthday parties. This was apparently what the community wanted; Free-Press circulation and revenues soared. On the death of MacDonald's son, the Times failed in its bid to buy the competition. Ruth's valiant and principled struggle was over. Both papers were sold to and merged into a chain.

Though we cared keenly about the life and death in Tennessee, it is a family subplot in the epic tale of The Trust. That larger story is not finished. And those of us who care about newspapers of character and courage join in the authors' benediction to this generation's leader, Arthur Jr.: "He is bolstered by a family that has willingly sacrificed wealth and personal ambition for the sake of the institution that is both their obligation and their glory."

--Brandt Ayers

Ayers is editor and publisher of the independent, family-owned Anniston Star, in Anniston, Alabama.

Immortality News
By Mariann Regan '64. Creative Arts Book Company. 278 pages. $16.95 paper.

As HMOs proliferate and medical science advances, health care has become a hot topic for pundits and scholars alike. To this social discussion, Regan adds a satirical novel, depicting a large American city where a formula for warding off disease and extending life is passed anonymously to certain people by way of the Internet. When this formula comes under clinical scrutiny, the result is a series of health-cost debates, congressional hearings, a presidential commission, and a mysterious, unofficial "clinical" trial whose results may or may not be fully revealed.

The Magical Years: A Boyhood Remembrance
By Walter Benjamin Ph.D. '57. Beaver's Pond Press. 384 pages. $24.95.

In this memoir of growing up in rural Minnesota during the Great Depression, ethicist Benjamin recounts tales of childhood in a day when moral absolutes held sway. In telling stories of church life, farm work, hunting, and family, he honors his small village community for sustaining values and nurturing its inhabitants.

Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia
By Woody Holton Ph.D.'90. University of North Carolina Press. 231 pages. $39.95 cloth; $15.95 paper.

History professor Holton asks why wealthy, aristocratic plantation owners started a revolution against a society with which they had much in common, and concludes that when Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and other elite Virginians joined their peers from other colonies in declaring independence from Britain, they did so partly in response to grassroots rebellions against their own rule. Slaves, native Americans, and tobacco farmers reacted strongly against Virginia's boycott of trade with Britain in 1774, and by early 1776, the gentry believed the only way to control the commonfolk in their colony was to remove Virginia from the British Empire. The narrative shows a new complexity to an old story, highlighting layers of sociology, politics, and economics in the patriot-loyalist relationship.

Changing Channels: Television and the Struggle for Power in Russia
By Ellen Mickiewicz. Duke University Press. 372 pages. $19.95 paper.

Mickiewicz, James R. Shepley Professor of Public Policy Studies and director of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Communications and Journalism at the Sanford Institute of Public Policy, has written extensively on the media and Russian and Soviet society. Changing Channels provides insights into the relationship between the two, examining television viewing as an enormous influence on Russian life.

The number of Russian viewers who routinely watch the nightly news matches the number of Americans who tune in for such special events as the Super Bowl, making TV coverage a prized asset for which political leaders compete with intensity and sometimes violence. Her work describes the ways in which ordinary Russians have become savvy media critics, how they watch and analyze the news and cope with news manipulation and bias, and how as a result, television has become a lone emblem of believable authority connecting the disparate parts of a huge nation.

She covers the period from state-controlled broadcasts at the end of the Soviet Union through an attempted coup against Gorbachev, the war in Chechnya, the 1996 presidential election, and the economic collapse of 1998, using firsthand research, opinion polls, and extensive interviews with key players, including Gorbachev.

Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power
By Timothy B. Tyson Ph.D. '94. University of North Carolina Press. 432 pages. $29.95.

In the late 1950s, Robert F. Williams was president of the Monroe, North Carolina, branch of the NAACP. In sharp contrast to the non-violent tactics of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, however, Williams and his followers used machine guns, dynamite, and Molotov cocktails to confront the Ku Klux Klan, and advocated "armed self-reliance" by black Southerners. In the 1960s, he was forced to flee to Cuba, where he broadcast "Radio Free Dixie," a program of black politics and music that reached as far as Los Angeles and New York.

Tyson's examination of Williams' life and political philosophy ties together the civil-rights struggle of the South with Cold War geopolitics and the volatile sexual subtext of the movement. It shows the reaction of independent black politics, black cultural pride, and "armed self-reliance" working both with and against legal efforts and nonviolent protests, and notes that, while the two sides are often portrayed as counterproductive and clashing, they were born together, grew together, and worked toward the same ends.

Visions of Paradise: Glimpses of Our Landscape's Legacy
By John Warfield Simpson M.F. '86. University of California Press. 387 pages. $35.

As the United States grew, it was transformed first from a wilderness to an agrarian landscape, then to a largely urban and suburban society. Simpson, a professor of architecture and natural resources at Ohio State University, describes this changing landscape in terms of nature itself and of the society that changed it, highlighting personalities, policies, and programs. He argues that because our egalitarian, reasoned landscape reflects our historical sense of separation from and superiority to the lawlessness of abundant nature, we are blind to the environmental consequences of society's actions--a contradiction that has resulted in the ongoing tensions of the contemporary environmental debate, and one which could hold the solution to that debate.

A Yemeni Passage
By Derek Franck (Richard Christian Franck '76). Azimuth Press. 429 pages. $24.95.

After receiving his Duke degree, Franck left the United States for Arabia, where he has worked and studied in the decades since. His experiences in Yemen and in other Middle Eastern countries laid the groundwork for this novel, which incorporates history and traditions with literary and linguistic inventions of the author's imagination. Despite creative liberties, Franck researched his work carefully, placing the story within the historical context of turmoil in eighteenth-century Yemen and retaining the rhythms of the Arabic language.

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