Today, when America’s news media are under attack for sensationalism, we recall that an American Jew, Adolph Simon Ochs, set the standard for objective, independent and responsible journalism.
Ochs was born in Cincinnati in 1868 to German-Jewish immigrants, Julius and Bertha Levy Ochs. Bertha Ochs had emigrated to Knoxville, Tenn., in 1,848, and when the Civil War started in 1861 she sided with the Confederacy. Julius, on the other hand, chose to serve in the Union army — a conflict that strained but did not divide the household. Thus Adolph’s parents modeled early in his life the importance of sticking to principles, regardless of the discomfort the might cause others.
At age 11, to help the family make ends meet, Adolph left grammar school to become a printer’s assistant at the Knoxville Chronicle, which, in his own words, became "my high school and my university." At the Chronicle, Adolph worked as a reporter, printer and office assistant. At age 19, sensing opportunity in Chattanooga, he moved there to take a job on the Chattanooga Times. When the paper started to fail, Ochs borrowed $250, purchased a controlling interest in the paper and became its publisher, as biographer Elmer Davis observed, "before he was old enough to vote."
It was at the Chattanooga Times that Ochs established the principles that would make him the most influential newspaper editor in American history. Ochs described his paper as "clean, dignified and trustworthy." In an age marked by "yellow" journalism, in which publishers such as William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer competed for readers by printing lurid and sometimes distorted accounts of murder and scandal, trying to sell a paper that was "clean, dignified and trustworthy" was risky. By distinguishing between news and editorial opinion, however, Ochs’ Chattanooga Times became one of the South’s most respected and prosperous dailies.
In 1896, Ochs learned of an opportunity to purchase The New York Times, a venerable institution that had fallen into difficulty. While he retained ownership of the Chattanooga Times, Ochs borrowed funds to purchase The New York Times and moved north to assume command, of the paper. The Times had lost most of its readership to Pulitzer’s World and Hearst’s Journal, each of which sold for a penny (The Times, when Ochs acquired it, charged three cents a copy). When The Times ran deep losses in 1897, Ochs’ advisors suggested that he raise the price to a nickel to reinforce to readers that he would not sink to the level of the "yellow" press. Instead, Ochs gambled that there was a mass readership for a quality paper and that if he dropped his price to a penny but stuck to his principle of separating news from editorial or political opinion The Times would find that audience.
Ochs proved correct. By publishing "all the news that’s fit to print" (and only the news that Ochs perceived as "fit"), The Times appealed to an audience Ochs described as "thoughtful, pure-minded people." Its circulation rose to 780,000 readers during the 1920s from just 9,000 when Ochs purchased it in 1896. Although critics accused Ochs of being too conservative in his social views and setting an elitist tone on the editorial page, they admitted that they depended on The Times for accurate accounts of events, full texts of treaties, laws and speeches and objectivity in reporting.
Ochs always put editorial independence ahead of profits. He would not accept dubious advertising or contracts with governments, which might be construed as compromising his political independence. TheNew York Times under Ochs’ leadership became the first national "newspaper of record" and proved that a publisher could reconcile mass circulation, profitability and journalistic responsibility.
In 1884, Ochs married Effie Wise, the daughter of Rabbi Isaac M. Wise of Cincinnati, who was the leading exponent of Reform Judaism in America and the founder of Hebrew Union College, the nation’s first Jewish theological school. Ochs gave credit to his Jewish home life and the Jewish religion for his high ethical ideals and willingness to excel. As a classical Reform Jew, Ochs sought to reconcile ancient traditions with contemporary values. Some of his ideas would now be controversial. He rejected the idea that Jews were a race of people. "I know Judaism only as a religion" He rejected Zionism as a mistaken mingling of religious and civic life. Jews would do well, he argued, "by standing as Jews for what is best in the life of our commonwealth."
A later generation of American Jews would reject Ochs’ notions that Zionism and Judaism are incompatible, just as many newspapers — including The Times itself, to some degree — have moved away from Ochs strict separation of news and editorial content and his blanket prohibition of sensationalism. Still, Adolph Ochs’ legacy in American journalism, and American society seems as secure as The New York Times itself.