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And a Pinch Shall Lead Them

Like the Romanovs before them, the New York Times is being felled not by diversity or politics, but by dynasty.

12:00 AM, Jun 5, 2003 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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IN 1988, in the course of a trip to America, Prince Charles of Britain asked to meet not the sons of the country's leading political families, but Arthur "Pinch" Sulzberger Jr.--heir to the New York Times newspaper complex--and Donald Graham of the Washington Post. "The forty-year-old heir to the British throne wanted to meet some of his American counterparts," Susan Tifft and Alex S. Jones write in "The Trust," their history of the Times, "and Arthur Jr. and Donald Graham . . . were judged to be in situations roughly similar to his own."

The situation they shared was the rare one of being wholly assured of gaining great power, solely because of their parents and bloodline, with competence barely an afterthought. This is the real problem with the Times, and the source of its current and ongoing troubles: Its Jayson Blair problem is really a Howell Raines problem, which, in turn, is a Pinch Sulzberger problem.

And this problem is not really the new form of preference--double standards to benefit people from an ethnic group that had been oppressed 60 years earlier--but the very old kind that benefits spoiled rich white boys from prominent families, who tend to accede to positions of power, without talent, without being tested, and sometimes without having a clue.

Like the Tudors, Stuarts, and Windsors before them, these self-worshipping clans and their surly and talentless children have filled many books (among them the four written about the Binghams of Louisville, whose daughters compare unfavorably with those of King Lear). The particular branch of which Pinch is the blossom began early on, when Times founder Adolph Ochs married off his one daughter to the dashing Arthur Hayes Sulzberger, who was only too happy to step in as his heir.

Arthur Hayes begat Arthur Ochs ("Punch") who was considered so dim by his mother and father that he was pushed out of the way for a sister's bright husband, and pushed in when the poor chap died young. Punch muddled through by listening to his much smarter editors, and begat Arthur Ochs Jr. ("Pinch"), who listened to no one. To give him credit, he did go through an apprenticeship, and tried hard to master the newspaper business.

Once installed, Pinch started to epater le bourgeoisie his great-grandfather had courted, trying to turn the paper of record into the Village Voice, or rather what the Voice would look like if it ran ads from Tiffany's. The motif of the Times became late-60s protest, bent on annoying the male and the white.

As a result, there were numerous reasons before the Blair rumpus to believe the Gray Lady was losing her grip. There was the coverage of the Augusta golf club as if it were the 1963 march on Selma, the gassy effusions of R.W. Apple, the "polls" that found trouble for Bush where no one else saw it, the endless forecasts of defeat. If you read the op-ed page of the Washington Post, you will in time find the best possible argument on all sides of all current political questions, and regular columns by people from George Will and Charles Krauthammer to Michael Kinsley and E.J. Dionne. In the Times, with one exception, opinions tend to range from Maureen Dowd to Paul Krugman, who go after the right with all the subtlety of a claxon horn.

It had gotten so bad that the Times was on its way to becoming a laughingstock before the Blair scandal: The paper even accomplished the amazing feat of losing readership during the Iraq war, with circulation sinking by some 5.3 percent. If it is hard to imagine a scene in the real world in which Pinch Sulzberger would have gotten his job, it is harder to imagine one in which he would be keeping it after such a performance. But royalty tends to hang on.

Why is a great institution in the 21st century acting as if this were France in 1500, and it were the House of Valois? Most monarchies have long since dropped this system, disposing of kings, or making them figureheads--having realized that the genetic lottery is even riskier than the electoral one, and a lot harder to rectify. The Raines-Sulzberger dynamic is best seen as another example of the prince and court favorite, the age-old pattern of public disaster that has brought down so many regimes.

This is the trouble with dynastic endeavors: They may work for a time, but sooner or later comes an idiot child--Henry VI, Nicholas Romanov--who wrecks the entire regime. Pinch Sulzberger is doing to the Adolph Ochs Times what Edward VIII almost did to the Windsors and England. And there's no Mrs. Simpson in sight.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.