An Inside Look at How NYT's Ownership Meddled with Coverage to Push Their Pet Projects

When Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos purchased the Washington Post last month, many wondered if and how the newspaper’s coverage would change. Would ownership by a right-libertarian billionaire significantly change how the paper covered, for example, tax policy? Will the paper start critically covering the for-profit education empire Kaplan, the booming business run by its outgoing owner Don Graham?

A study by Daniel Chomsky, a political scientist at Temple University (and nephew of linguist and political scholar Noam Chomsky), sheds some light on how ownership can interfere in media coverage to pursue their own interests, wealth and social status.

Chomsky looked at memos written by Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who served as the publisher of the New York Times between 1935 and 1961, to the paper's managing editor, Turner Catledge. Focusing on a six-year period starting in 1956, Chomsky examined hundreds of “blue notes”—memos Sulzberger sent to Catledge mostly on blue paper—to see how they impacted news decisions. The file Chomsky studied contained 415 of these blue notes, at a rate of about 60 a year. Although the notes are not the only way Sulzberger communicated to Times staff, they provide tangible evidence of editorial intervention. Catledge would frequently internalize Sulzberger’s complaints, and then relay them to reporters as coming from “a reader.”

As one example of how the correspondences actually changed coverage, Sulzberger complained of coverage of a civil rights bill, leading Catledge to respond the next day: “You were absolutely right about the confused nature of our summary on the civil rights bill in yesterday’s paper. I hope you liked the one we had today. It was a direct result of your suggestions.”

Chomsky categorizes 38% (156) of Sulzberger’s memos as containing some sort of suggestion. He finds that while many of these suggestions received no written response from Catledge, they often resulted in changes in the paper. For example, in December of 1956, Sulzberger asked for coverage of “shocking” Egyptian treatment of French and British soldiers. This sentiment was then reflected in the news coverage of the paper. Chomsky estimates that of 136 suggestions meant to directly appear in news stories, at least 108, 79%, ended up being directly addressed in the paper.

Catledge described his views on the impact of a media outlet’s publisher in his 1971 memoir. ‘‘In the newspaper business you don’t loosely snub your publisher’s pet projects,” he wrote. “Catledge seemed extraordinarily deferential to the owner’s requests,” writes Chomsky. “Of the 107 cases in which a record of a response exists in the file, the editor undertook serious efforts to satisfy the publisher in 105 of them.”

On a handful of occasions, editors at the Times resisted a request from Sulzberger. The publisher asked his editors to run a story on a friend who was organizing a charity event and received resistance from Catledge, the news department, and Sunday editor Lester Markel. Yet the story went on to run anyway, exactly on the date Sulzberger had requested. In another instance, Sulzberger was successful in getting a “profile, two news stories, and a picture” of Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, whom a friend of his—the ambassador to Taiwan—was pleading for positive coverage of.

“Sulzberger never suggested a single story dealing with ordinary workers. Unions entered Sulzberger’s consciousness and his blue notes only as threats to society,” notes Chomsky.

Foreign policy was also a prime interest of Sulzberger's. He insisted (with partial success) that Tass not be called the Soviet “news agency” but rather the “propaganda agency”; he reminded staff under him to “Please don’t forget about my memo relative to our helping [Cuban dictator Fulgencio] Batista.” Sulzberger was also active in promoting coverage critical of Israel, such as praising coverage of a story about the Israeli government removing a child from an Israeli-Arab couple.

In concluding his study of the New York Times under publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger, Chomsky notes that of the 156 story suggestions he found, a response is recorded in 107 cases, or 69%. The editor made a serious effort to publish stories in all but two of those cases (105 of 107), or 98.1% of the time.” This was slightly less than the obedience Catledge once offered Sulzberger, telling him, “I  daresay that 99 44/100 times we will follow your advice.”

Chomsky’s study is a fascinating overview of how media ownership impacted coverage in the past. It shows how Times staff, sometimes against their better judgment, repeatedly altered their reporting to reflect the biases of the owner of the newspaper.

But is the same dynamic in play at the paper today? We don’t have the internal documentation to show how publishers and editors are interacting, but we do know that the Times has been sensitive to the business interests of its owners.

For example, the Times has obsessively covered Carlos Slim’s bid on Dutch telecom company KPM. Slim isn’t just any investor, he’s the world’s second-richest man who also happens to be the second-largest shareholder of the New York Times. He has faced significant protests over his business practices in Mexico, but those protests have not made it onto the pages of the paper of record.

As Bezos settles into his future role as owner of the Washington Post and other media outlets remain open for the buying, citizens who rely on a free press would do well to consume their news with discerning eyes. Meanwhile, alternative models of media, such as non-profit media, continue to be an important alternative to a news media that is increasingly under the control of a handful of conglomerates.

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