THE TRUST: THE PRIVATE AND POWERFUL FAMILY BEHIND THE NEW YORK TIMES By Susan Tifft and Alex Jones Little, Brown 870 pages, $29.95
The wife-husband team of Susan Tifft and Alex Jones proved years ago that they could use their journalistic talents to write a memorable book about a multigeneration newspaper family. That book, "The Patriarch: The Rise and Fall of the Bingham Dynasty," related the story of the family that led the Louisville Courier-Journal to editorial greatness, then lost it all through dissension to the Gannett Company, an absentee owner well-known for purchasing monopoly newspapers.
Group biography is difficult to make compelling. There are so many characters spanning so many generations that a narrative storyline is a challenge to maintain. "The Patriarch" was such a superb book that the authors could have been excused if they had decided to try another genre. After all, how easy is it to top excellence?
Instead, Tifft and Jones raised the stakes by deciding to chronicle the most prominent newspaper family in American history, the Ochs and the Sulzbergers, four generations of whom have made The New York Times the most influential newspaper in the world.
Born in Tennessee to German-Jewish immigrant parents, Adolph Simon Ochs started his newspaper career in the South before purchasing the financially ailing New York Times in 1896.
By the time Tifft and Jones started their research, nearly 100 years later, so many myths had grown around The New York Times that they had become accepted as fact. "The truth, as it turned out, would prove to be more complicated - and much more interesting," Tifft and Jones say in their prologue.
In their long book, the truth emerges gradually, in four parts, with each part chronicling a new generation of ownership.
Adolph Ochs's reign lasted until 1935. After his daughter Iphigene married Arthur Hays Sulzberger in 1917, a new family entered the picture.
Fortunately for The New York Times Corporation and the literate public, the Sulzbergers cared just as much about the newspaper's quality as did the Ochses.
With the passing of Arthur Hays Sulzberger in 1968, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the only son from the marriage, took complete control. In a time of women's liberation, his three older sisters might have shared the corporate helm. Although Marian, Ruth, and Judith were highly competent, they allowed baby brother to make day-to-day decisions. A strength of the book is the refusal of Tifft and Jones to take the easy way out by marginalizing the women of the family in each generation. Because the women lacked official titles as operating officers, the authors could have mentioned them in passing, then focused on the more publicly prominent men. Instead, the women come across as complicated, evolving characters.
A pleasant enough person, a capable businessman, and a guardian of editorial excellence, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger steered the company through expansion into additional newspapers, magazines, and related businesses, while grooming son Arthur Jr., born in 1951, to take over. Arthur Sr., usually known as "Punch," turned over the operation to his son long before he had to.
During Arthur Jr.'s so-far brief tenure at the top, the newspaper has become a little more plebeian. For the most part, though, it has stayed at or near the top of the heap in all its parts. No daily newspaper publishes a better Sunday magazine, a better book review section, a better arts section, or a better travel section. The sports and editorial pages have their equals, but the news sections demonstrate unparalleled depth and breadth.
In each generation, there are so many cousins, aunts, and uncles that the names can become dizzying. A genealogical chart at the front of the book helps a great deal. That chart, understandably enough, excludes the huge numbers of non-family newsroom employees, business managers, and corporate advisers who populate the pages. A multi-generational chart of them would have been welcome, nontraditional as it might have been.
Tifft and Jones also dispense with burdensome sourcing within the text. Given their desire for narrative storytelling, that is defensible. More detailed endnotes would have been useful, though, in determining how they know who said what to whom during discussions - to mention one of many examples - over whether to purchase The Boston Globe.
There have been three superb histories of The New York Times focusing on the editorial challenges. Each of those came from an inside reporter - Meyer Berger in 1951, Gay Talese in 1969, and Harrison Salisbury in 1980. Newsroom insiders have produced enthralling memoirs, too - Arthur Krock in 1968, Turner Catledge in 1971, James Reston in 1991, and Max Frankel earlier this year (reviewed April 22.)
The Tifft-Jones group biography, so different from all of those, ought to find a permanent place on the shelf of important books about an important newspaper.
*Steve Weinberg teaches journalism at the University of Missouri, Columbia.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society