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Watching the Watchdog: Ode to a New York Times Legend

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Tim Knight writes the regular media column Watching the Watchdog for Huffpost Canada.

Most newspaper journalists aren't overly-fond of their publishers. They tend to believe that publishers -- in effect CEOs -- have a nasty habit of paying more respect to their corporate than journalistic duties.

Arthur "Punch" Sulzberger who was publisher of the estimable New York Times was always a splendid exception.

In fact, he put his own freedom, and his newspaper's very existence, on the line because he believed absolutely in the public's right to know.

Punch Sulzberger died Saturday and got a send-off few publishers anywhere have ever earned.

He was a wealthy scion of America's establishment and a proud ex-marine, veteran of World War ll and Korea. Yet he ordered publication of the Pentagon Papers -- a top-secret government history revealing the lies, deceit and deceptions of the Johnson and Nixon governments during the Vietnam war.

By defying President Nixon's demand that he not publish those 7,000 classified pages, Sulzberger risked prison for himself and the closing down of his beloved Times.

In a fine irony, some 40 years later, another U.S. president, Barack Obama, praised him as:

"A firm believer in the importance of a free and independent press, one that isn't afraid to seek the truth, hold those in power accountable and tell the stories that need to be told."

Publication of the Pentagon Papers was Sulzberger's finest hour -- a huge victory for freedom of the press everywhere in the democratic world including Canada.

During Sulzberger's 30-year watch as publisher of the Times, the paper won 31 Pulitzer Prizes, the most important award in all American journalism.

Last weekend around the world, newspaper after newspaper praised his iron rule that the newsroom and not the business office is by far the most important department in any newspaper.

Max Frankel was the Times' long time editorial page editor and executive editor. He paid tribute to his boss whose commentaries he sometimes rewrote, occasionally refused to print.

"(He) was a media mogul who never ordered an article to be printed or deleted from the news columns of his paper. In a quarter-century in which I reported directly to him, he never once summoned me to his office to complain about our journalistic decisions. As he always insisted, the Times sold not just news, but judgment about the importance and interest of news."

You don't get much higher praise about a publisher from any journalist!

I met Punch Sulzberger shortly after he ordered publication of those Pentagon Papers.

I'd made The Great Grey Lady, a documentary on the New York Times for the weekly media program, Behind The Lines, on New York's PBS station Channel 13.

After the program aired, Times managing editor, Abe Rosenthal (a Canadian and himself a Pulitzer Prize winner), invited me to lunch in the paper's private dining rooms with some of the Times senior people.

(In the documentary, I'd asked Rosenthal if he believed the New York Times to be the greatest newspaper in the world. As I recall, he smiled the smile of a proud and dedicated journalist who's absolutely certain of his facts: "Without a doubt Tim... without a doubt.")

Sulzberger (introduced as Punch) was one of the half dozen men, all notably urbane and civil, all a great deal older and more experienced than me, who shared the excellent wine, soup and fish and politely asked my opinions about the events of the day.

I'd shot my documentary by interviewing Times journalists about the strengths and weaknesses of their paper. No doubt because they were Timespeople and believed in telling truth to fellow journalists, all had talked of their respect for the paper, but many had also raised criticisms.

So I kept waiting for some sort of challenge, even confrontation from these most eminent men. Most likely -- because of the paper's conservative culture and hierarchy -- from the boss, Sulzberger. After all, it was his baby I'd publicly critiqued.

But the famous publisher was charming, polite, a great listener, and never even raised the matter.

When the lunch was over, we all shook hands and I walked out into Times Square having no idea what Sulzberger and Rosenthal, the people who together ran the world's greatest newspaper, really thought of my Great Grey Lady.

Before he died Sulzberger was surprisingly optimistic about the future of serious quality newspapers -- not just his beloved Times.

"I think that paper and ink are here to stay for the kind of newspapers we print. There's no shortage of news in this world. If you want news, you can go to cyberspace and grab out all this junk. But I don't think most people are competent to become editors, or have the time or the interest."

Punch Sulzberger started out as a reporter on the Times but by all accounts wasn't much good at it. So he became publisher and ironically, in that role turned out to be a very great journalist indeed.

To this day, reels of 16 mm black and white reversal film rot under a pile of stuff in my closet. They're labelled New York Times: The Great Grey Lady and on those reels is all the footage we shot for the documentary.

I still have the film because President Nixon's attacks on his perceived enemies, particularly in the media, had driven us Channel 13 producers to such paranoia that we feared police raids on the station. So, for safekeeping, we grabbed all the film we shot that might possibly be deemed anti-administration and took it home with us.

I just never got around to taking The Great Grey Lady back.