NEW YORK — Few moments in U.S. journalism loom larger than the one that came in 1971, when New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger had to decide whether to defy a president, and risk a potential criminal charge, by publishing a classified Defense Department history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
His choice — to publish the Pentagon Papers and then fight the Nixon administration’s subsequent attempt to muzzle the story — cemented Sulzberger’s place as a First Amendment giant — a role being celebrated after he died Saturday at 86.
The former publisher, who led the Times to new levels of influence and profit while standing up for press freedom, died at his home in Southampton, N.Y., after a long illness, his family announced.
During his three-decade tenure, Sulzberger’s newspaper won 31 Pulitzers while he went about transforming the family business from perpetually shaky to the muscular media behemoth it was when he retired.
Weekday circulation climbed from 714,000 when Sulzberger became publisher in 1963 to 1.1 million when he stepped down as publisher in 1992. Over the same period, the annual revenues of the Times’ corporate parent rose from $100 million to $1.7 billion.
Yet it was Sulzberger’s positions on editorial independence that made him a hero of the profession, like when he rejected his lawyers’ warnings that reading the Pentagon Papers — let alone publishing them — constituted a crime.
Sulzberger, who went by the nickname “Punch” and served in the Marine Corps, privately worried that he had doomed the newspaper but gave interviews saying the Times wouldn’t allow the U.S. government to cover up its mistakes under the guise of national security.
“That is a wonderful way, if you’ve got egg on your face, to prevent anybody from knowing it: Stamp it SECRET and put it away,” he said.
Sulzberger was the only grandson of Adolph S. Ochs, the son of Bavarian immigrants who took over the Times in 1896 and built it into the most influential U.S. newspaper.
The family retains control to this day, holding a special class of shares that give them more powerful voting rights than other stockholders.
Power was thrust on Sulzberger at 37 after the sudden death of his brother-in-law in 1963. He had been in the Times executive suite for eight years in a role he later described as “vice president in charge of nothing.”
But Sulzberger directed the Times’ evolution from an encyclopedic paper of record to a more reader-friendly product that reached into the suburbs and across the nation.
Under his watch, the Times started a national edition, bought its first color presses, and introduced — to the chagrin of some hard-news purists — popular and lucrative sections covering topics such as food and entertainment.
“You forget the unbelievable outrage that greeted those sections. But in retrospect, it was the right decision both editorially and economically,” said Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
In 1992, Sulzberger relinquished the publisher’s job to his son, Arthur Jr., but remained chairman of The New York Times Co.
Sulzberger retired as chairman and chief executive of the company in 1997. His son was named chairman. Sulzberger stayed on the Times Co. board of directors until 2002.
In 1971, the Times led the fight to keep the government from suppressing the Pentagon Papers. Sulzberger read more than 7,000 pages of the documents and presided over a dramatic internal debate before deciding to publish. Then, he resisted a demand by Attorney General John Mitchell that the paper halt the series after two installments.
A federal judge delayed publication of additional installments, but in a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the Times and The Washington Post, and allowed the series to continue.
In their book “The Trust,” a history of the Ochs-Sulzberger family and its stewardship of the paper, Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones cited Sulzberger’s “common sense and unerring instincts.”