By: Jesse Oxfeld
It was a sad commentary on the elite media world at Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel this afternoon when the funniest jabs at the roasting of New York Times Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. came not from one of the writers or editors on stage but rather from — of all things — an investment banker, who happily invoked the name of Howell Raines, the departed Times editor.
When he got a chance to respond, Sulzberger quipped: “It’s a good thing Jayson Blair had another event this afternoon.”
Sulzberger, who is also chairman of the New York Times Company, was the honoree at the Center for Communication’s Annual Award Luncheon. The center is a media-education organization, founded in 1980 by former CBS President Frank Stanton, that presents seminars, job fairs, internships, and mentorship programs that help connect college communications students with active professionals. The annual luncheon, at which a major media figure is subjected to a “roast/toast,” is a fundraiser for the center. Previous honorees include Katharine Graham, Otis Chandler, Al Neuharth, and Arthur O. Sulzberger Sr.
This year’s roaster/toasters were Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, a Sulzberger friend (who toasted, rather than roasted, by praising his work for education); New York magazine editor-in-chief Adam Moss, formerly editor of The New York Times Magazine; Times columnist Maureen Dowd; and media investment banker Steven Rattner, who was once a Times reporter.
Maureen Dowd opened her remarks by reminding the crowd “that I’m the only one up here who actually works for the man,” which might explain why most of her jokes were at her own expense, not the roastee’s. She referred to Sulzberger’s Outward Bound-influenced management techniques, mentioning retreats with three-legged races and edit/business teams working together to bake a cake. It’s all very “touchy-feely,” she said, “and, as you all know, this is not my style. I don’t like anyone touching or feeling me.”
Dowd recalled writing an editorial for the paper criticizing the Empire State Building for accepting a payment from the Mars company to light the top of the building in blue to celebrate the release of blue M&Ms. The editorial, published on March 30, 1995, also noted that “everyone knows that blue is an unappetizing color, because it is not one of the colors found in the natural world of things we eat.”
“I was feeling pretty happy with myself the next morning,” Dowd said, until her phone rang. It was Sulzberger, asking: “Have you ever heard of blueberries?”
Adam Moss had more bite, and his digs cut close to the bone, often leaving the audience giggling, but uncomfortably. He began by referencing the famous Jim Hightower quote, the one about George H.W. Bush being born on third base and thinking he had hit a triple, and suggesting it also applied to Sulzberger.
Moss also said he wanted to focus on Sulzberger’s “economic policy” — noting that his own window was about to close on exercising New York Times Co. stock options, and the stock’s performance has been dismal. He blamed this in part on Sulzberger’s “foreign policy,” including his costly international adventures. “Arthur, once you won control of the International Herald Tribune,” said Moss, “you had no plan to win the peace. … I have seen your 10-year plan, and the most generous phrase I can use to describe it is: ‘faith-based.'”
Granting, though, that he might one day “have to come crawling back to you for a job,” Moss ended on a positive note: “It is you, Arthur, who is a true compassionate conservative,” being both a caring person and a great conservator of the institution he heads.
But the star of the show was Rattner, who confessed being close friends with Sulzberger and claimed he would leave the “easy jokes and cheap shots” to others. He called Sulzberger a “talented manager” and noted specifically the Times publisher’s stuffed moose — a reminder that uncomfortable facts shouldn’t be ignored — which famously made an appearance at the full-staff meeting held at the Times just after the Jayson Blair story broke.
With that, Rattner placed a stuffed moose on the podium and continued his tribute, referring to Sulzberger’s “challenging 2003.” Suddenly, a loud moo/moan/neigh echoed trough the Plaza’s Grand Ballroom. Rattner attempted to continue, but there was another moan/moo/neigh, and then a voice:
“Did you say Arthur had a challenging 2003?” the moose (or, perhaps, a piped-in voice) asked incredulously, ensuring, as always, that uncomfortable facts weren’t ignored. “Yeah, and Nixon had a fascinating 1973.”
Rattner let the moose have his say then moved on to compliment Sulzberger’s “sound judgment.”
“Am I even in the room?” the moose interjected. “Howell Raines. We know how that turned out.”
Rattner is a billionaire businessman; he’s not someone used to being interrupted, especially by quadrupeds. He tried to let the moose know this.
“But my whole thing is to say the unsayable,” the stuffed animal explained, miraculously not moving its lips. “Jayson Blair, Jayson Blair, Jayson Blair, Jayson Blair.” The audience — about 300 media figures and those who love them (or at least do business with them) — was laughing hard.
With the unsaid said, the moose was finished, and soon so, too, was Rattner. “Among his many qualities, he’s always a good sport,” Rattner said of his friend.
When Sulzberger finally came to the stage to accept his award, he stopped to stab the stuffed moose when he reached the podium. “I’m in the market,” he said, “for four new friends.” Then he corrected himself — “actually, three new friends” — and hugged Schlossberg.
Sulzberger gave as good as he got, especially to Moss, who has given it hardest. “Adam, thank you for taking time away from editing New York magazine,” he said, “a magazine about Steve and Caroline and their friends. And what they’re getting each other for the holidays. It’s God’s work.”
Then he got serious. A federal shield law is likely to be introduced in Congress in the next few days, he said, and “I ask all of you?re here today to think about what you can do to help achieve passage of this law.” Protecting journalists isn’t just about protecting the Times’ Judith Miller and Time magazine’s Matt Cooper, he said, but about whether news from Washington can be more than just “press releases and speeches.”