In the case of Judy Miller and Plamegate, several outside sources involved in the case, including Norman Pearlstine, now at Bloomberg News, then head of Time Inc. (whose reporter Matt Cooper had also been cited for contempt in the case), and Robert Bennett, Miller’s criminal-defense lawyer, have criticized Sulzberger for treating the case as a free-press crusade. Indeed, when I interviewed Sulzberger about Miller in late 2004, he compared her situation to the fight over the Pentagon Papers case that his father had led more than thirty years earlier. Sulzberger’s zeal was in sharp contrast to the view of many First Amendment lawyers and reporters I talked to at the time, who saw the case as a stone-cold loser, likely to set a bad precedent on the reporter’s privilege. It was even in contrast to the attitude of Sulzberger’s own executive editor, Bill Keller, who projected a somewhat rueful outlook about the whole episode. (Keller later admitted he lost faith in Miller’s cause as the case proceeded.) In reviewing a history of the Pentagon Papers for this story, I was struck by a fact I’d never seen. When the Justice Department named twenty-two Times employees in a federal complaint, the paper had buttons printed up that read FREE THE TIMES XXII. In the Plame case, Sulzberger similarly proposed printing up ten thousand buttons reading FREE MATT. FREE JUDY. FREE PRESS. and distributing them to Times staff members. Even so, despite his ardent defense of Miller, after she struck a deal to testify before a grand jury and after criticism mounted of her reporting on Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent arsenal of wmd before the Iraq war, Sulzberger was not averse to showing her the door. Miller went from touting Sulzberger as her savior to saying she’d been betrayed. In a 2005 interview on PBS with Charlie Rose, Sulzberger distinguished between Miller’s role reporting on WMD and the issues involved in the Plame case. An executive with a more practical bent might have realized it was impossible to separate the two. But when the institution you guide is also your religion, practicality sometimes has little do with your decision-making. Both the Blair and Miller episodes contributed to a picture of Sulzberger’s leadership style as somewhat chaotic, one that veered sharply from an all-out defense of his staffers to their swift excommunication when things got tough. When I asked about both episodes, Sulzberger gave them a New Age spin: “As with all of life, both were opportunities for growth and learning. We, as a newspaper, and I, as an individual, did both.”
In his role as chairman of The New York Times Company for the last decade, Sulzberger gets high marks for being a consistent champion of technology and for recognizing early that the future of the company was not on paper but in information. Though he did not go to business school, Sulzberger is fluent in the patois of management and speaks often of the need for a team-building approach to business, reminiscent of the lessons in wilderness survival he learned as a teenager with Outward Bound, an experience that left a deep impression on him. His favorite book on management is The Leadership Moment, by Michael Useem, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. Useem uses real-life case studies, including an ill-fated Himalayan expedition and the Civil War battle of Little Round Top, to illustrate leadership principles. Useem’s focus on adventure is not just theoretical. In 2005, he invited Sulzberger and his son to go on a trek in Antarctica with a group of business-school students, where Sulzberger memorably led a group discussion on leadership in an abandoned Russian warming hut.
But in some respects, Sulzberger has limited use for the conventional mores of business culture. In The Trust, Tifft and Jones recount how he loathed a program on advanced management he attended at Harvard in the mid 1980s. “I wouldn’t want to work for the company they wanted me to run,” he is quoted as saying in the book. “They were interested in building wealth. I was interested in building value.” When I asked about the program, Sulzberger didn’t comment on it directly but said, “In a nutshell, I believe that value brings wealth. You can’t sacrifice the institution to achieve short-term aims.”