Most Humiliating Moments in Vanity Fair's Arthur Sulzberger Profile

New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. cancelled plans to cooperate with Mark Bowden's profile of him for Vanity Fair. Didn't matter: Bowden's piece is embarrassing enough as a write-around.

It's hard to imagine the Black Hawk Down author getting as much milage from a few interviews as he did just fact-checking Sulzberger's TV appearances and office furniture, not to mention the quotes and anecdotes he elicited from (mostly) anonymous coworkers past and present.

Highlights, setting aside the well-known anecdotes and failures Bowden retreads, follow, category by category.

Sulzberger clinging to factually incorrect information

Keep in mind: This guy is the publisher and family steward of the New York Times.

  • The linchpin of Sulzberger's business strategy is a factually incorrect family story. The publisher enthusiastically described on the Charlie Rose Show a decision by his grandfather to expand the space for news during World War II. Bowden: "This story is false. It is dismissed even in The Trust, a mostly glowing account of the newspaper and the family written with the full cooperation of the Sulzbergers... [the grandfather] increased space for ads and decreased space for news."
  • Sulzberger framed a purported Winston Churchill quote in his office, from a speech during World War II: "Never never never give up." Bowden: "What Churchill actually said was 'Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never-in nothing, great or small, large or petty-never give in,' and he added an important qualifier: '-except to convictions of honour and good sense.'"

They really don't like Sulzberger in the executive suite:

  • Bowden: "Even the mid-level talent around Arthur does not regard him as a peer, much less a suitable leader. He is accepted, of course. The family does own the newspaper..."
  • The business side, said one former associate, "saw him as insubstantial, as flighty, as glib, and as not caring about them as much as he cared about journalists."
  • Former Times staffer: "He has no rays." Bowden: "Rays, as in the lines cartoonists draw around a character to suggest radiance, or power... [the] deficit is a standard insider lament about Arthur."

It's not much better in the newsroom:

  • Sulzberger likes to talk about his oh-so-hardscrabble days as a newspaper reporter/Times heir apparent. Former Times executive: "He'll just do it as a throwaway-‘When I was a reporter.' I will say this to him one day: Don't say that... Do you think it's giving you more credibility with journalists? It actually gives you less."
  • The provincial publisher was once confused by a question about a story in that day's "Post," meaning Washington Post. He supposedly replied, "I only read the Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the New York Post." Page Six trumps Watergate, apparently.

Sulzberger's Web slips:
  • It was already known Sulzberger declined to invest in Google. It turns out he also passed on a potentially hugely lucrative partnership with Amazon.com, to embed affiliate links in the online Times Book Review. Former CFO Diane Baker: "They said, We can't do it, because Barnes & Noble is a big advertiser."
  • Sulzberger's use of the term "platform agnostic" to describe publishing news both online and in print is nonsensical. Tom Rosenstiel of Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism: "Agnostics are people who don't-who aren't sure what they believe in. That's the first problem. And the second problem is, in practice, there is no such thing as being platform agnostic. You actually have to choose which platform you work on first... you need to change the culture of a news organization and decide that the Internet is the primary new thing."

Just ouch:

  • Damning praise from longtime Sulzberger "friend" Steve Rattner, the former Times reporter turned investment maven turned Obama auto bailout adviser: "In everything he does, he means well." (Emphasis added.)

[Vanity Fair]