1996 Burton Benjamin Memorial Award Honoree
ARTHUR OCHS SULZBERGER
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer
The New York Times Company
Twenty-five years ago Arthur Ochs Sulzberger made a decision that profoundly strengthened the free American press. He decided that The New York Times should publish portions of the Pentagon Papers, the secret Defense Department history of United States involvement in Vietnam. The series of articles that followed changed the public’s perception of its government–and, just as important, changed the press’s view of its role in a democratic society.
The pressures on Sulzberger as publisher of The Times were great. The paper’s longtime lawyers told him that he risked criminal prosecution. The Vietnam War was going on, with American soldiers coming back in body bags, and he was an intensely patriotic person. But he decided that the interest of telling Americans the truth about an issue that was dividing the country must prevail: that it was the public’s right to know and the press’s duty to report.
After the third installment of the series appeared in The Times, the Nixon Administration won a restraining order from a judge: the first prior restraint against newspaper publication ever granted to the federal government. The Supreme Court overturned that restraint in a landmark decision. Justice Hugo L. Black, in his concurring opinion, said that “in revealing the workings of government that led to the Vietnam War,” The Times and other newspapers that followed it “nobly did” what the Framers of the Constitution had hoped and expected.
PENTAGON PAPERS CASE
In June 1971, Sulzberger gave his editors the go-ahead to publish portions of the Pentagon Papers, the classified Defense Department study that revealed that throughout four administrations there had been a much higher level of official commitment to and frustration with the country’s war efforts in Vietnam than had been publicly acknowledged at the time critical decisions were made.
To assess whether the Times would aggravate the problem of government confidentiality by publishing the Pentagon Papers, editors reviewed the many books and articles that had been written by former government officials during the Kennedy and Johnson years. They found that despite the Papers’ “top secret” classification, much of the information contained within them had already been revealed by the former government officials themselves.
By deciding to run excerpts of the study, Sulzberger knew that as the Times’ publisher he risked criminal prosecution for violating espionage laws. But he chose to do so in the interest of revealing to American citizens the extent to which they had been deceived by their government.
After the Times printed its third installment of the Pentagon Papers, the Nixon administration cracked down, winning an injunction of prior restraint. If the Times published the remaining articles in its series, the government argued, it would bring “immediate and irreparable harm” to the “national defense interests of the United States and the nation’s security.”
The Pentagon Papers case went to the Supreme Court, and, in a landmark decision, the Court overturned the restraining order. In a concurring opinion, Justice Hugo L. Black said, “Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.” He added that The New York Times and those that followed it deserved commendation, not condemnation, for their work. The Times later received the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
Sulzberger’s decision to risk government censure and his newspaper’s reputation in the interest of the American public marked a turning point for journalism. The New York Times’ victory in the Pentagon Papers case sent a clear message that the public’s right to know can override the government’s right to secrecy.
SULZBERGER’S CAREER AT THE NEW YORK TIMES
Currently the chairman and chief executive officer of The New York Times Company, Sulzberger has spent his entire professional career with the Times, beginning in 1951, except for one year (1953-1954) when he was a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal. After service in the U.S. Marine Corps in both World War II and the Korean War, he worked as a reporter on the Times’ city staff and as a foreign correspondent in its Paris, Rome, and London bureaus. He was appointed publisher in 1963, upon the death of his brother-in-law Orvil E. Dryfoos, and remained in the post until 1992, when he handed over the reins to his son, then deputy publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr.
Sulzberger has also played a leading role in several of the journalism profession’s top associations. He was a director of the Newspaper Advertising Bureau and was chairman from 1974 to 1976. He was a director of the American Newspaper Publishers Association, and served as chairman from 1988 to 1989. (The NAB and ANPA have since merged, and the new organization is called the Newspaper Association of America.) He served as a director of the American Press Institute from 1975 to 1986 and of the Associated Press from 1975 to 1984. He is co-chairman of the International Herald Tribune and a director of The Times Printing Company of Chattanooga, Tenn.
Sulzberger is chairman of the board of trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a trustee emeritus of Columbia University, from which he graduated in 1951. He holds honorary doctor of law degrees from Columbia University, the University of Scranton, and Dartmouth and Bard Colleges, and honorary doctor of humane letters degrees from Tufts University and Montclair State College. He was the recipient of the 1992 Columbia Journalism Award, the highest honor of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
His memberships in social, fraternal, and professional organizations include the Metropolitan Club and the Army and Navy Club in Washington, D.C.; the Overseas Press Club; the Sons of the American Revolution, and the Explorers Club.
ABOUT THE BURTON BENJAMIN MEMORIAL AWARD
The Burton Benjamin Memorial Award is presented to individuals for their lifetime achievement in promoting press freedom. It is named for the late Burton Benjamin, who was senior executive producer at CBS News and served briefly as chair of the Committee to Protect Journalists before his death in 1988.
During his 29 years in television, Benjamin worked as a writer for several CBS News programs, including “The 20th Century.” He went on to supervise “CBS News Sunday Morning,” anchored by Charles Kuralt, and became executive producer of the “CBS Evening News” with Walter Cronkite, who called him “undoubtedly the finest documentary producer with whom I was ever privileged to work.”
Benjamin is best remembered as the author of the Benjamin Report, which followed his internal probe of the 1982 CBS documentary on the Vietnam War. Benjamin also wrote Fair Play: CBS, General Westmoreland, and How a Television Documentary Went Wrong.
Previous recipients of the Burton Benjamin Memorial Award are Walter Cronkite, CBS News; Katharine Graham, The Washington Post Company; R.E. (Ted) Turner, Turner Broadcasting System, Inc.; George Soros, The Soros Foundations; and Ben Bradlee, The Washington Post.
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