NEW YORK -- Few moments in American journalism loom larger than the one that came in 1971, when New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger had to decide whether to defy a president, and risk a potential criminal charge, by publishing a classified Defense Department history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
His choice, to publish the Pentagon Papers and then fight the Nixon administration's subsequent attempt to muzzle the story, cemented Sulzberger's place as a First Amendment giant – a role being celebrated after he died Saturday at age 86.
The former publisher, who led the Times to new levels of influence and profit while standing up for press freedom, died at his home in Southampton, N.Y., after a long illness, his family announced.
During his three-decade tenure, Sulzberger's newspaper won 31 Pulitzer prizes while he went about transforming the family business from perpetually shaky to the muscular media behemoth it was when he retired.
Weekday circulation climbed from 714,000 when Sulzberger became publisher in 1963 to 1.1 million when he stepped down as publisher in 1992. Over the same period, the annual revenues of the Times' corporate parent rose from $100 million to $1.7 billion.
Yet it was Sulzberger's positions on editorial independence that made him a hero of the profession, like when he rejected his own lawyers' warnings that even reading the Pentagon Papers, let alone publishing them, constituted a crime.
Sulzberger, who went by the nickname "Punch" and served with the Marine Corps, privately worried that he had doomed the newspaper but gave interviews saying the Times wouldn't allow the U.S. government to cover up its mistakes under the guise of national security.
"That is a wonderful way, if you've got egg on your face, to prevent anybody from knowing it: Stamp it SECRET and put it away," he said.
"Punch, the old Marine captain who never backed down from a fight, was an absolutely fierce defender of the freedom of the press," his son, and current Times publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., said in a statement.
Sulzberger was the only grandson of Adolph S. Ochs (pronounced ox), the son of Bavarian immigrants who took over the Times in 1896 and built it into the nation's most influential newspaper.
The family retains control to this day, holding a special class of shares that give them more powerful voting rights than other stockholders.
Power was thrust on Sulzberger at the age of 37 after the sudden death of his brother-in-law in 1963. He had been in the Times executive suite for eight years in a role he later described as "vice president in charge of nothing."
But Sulzberger directed the Times' evolution from an encyclopedic paper of record to a more reader-friendly product that reached into the suburbs and across the nation.
Under his watch, the Times started a national edition, bought its first color presses, and introduced – to the chagrin of some hard-news purists – popular and lucrative sections covering topics such as food and entertainment.
"You forget the unbelievable outrage that greeted those sections. But in retrospect it was the right decision both editorially and economically," said Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
In 1992, Sulzberger relinquished the publisher's job to his son but remained chairman of The New York Times Co. Sulzberger retired as chairman and chief executive of the company in 1997. His son then was named chairman. Sulzberger stayed on the Times Co. board of directors until 2002.
Reacting to news of Sulzberger's death Saturday, former Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld said that his business success was matched by integrity in the newsroom.
"As an editor, you knew that if you went to the publisher and sought his support on an issue that you deemed to be of high importance, you could pretty much count on getting it. He knew how to back his people," Lelyveld said.
President Barack Obama said Sulzberger was "a firm believer in the importance of a free and independent press – one that isn't afraid to seek the truth, hold those in power accountable, and tell the stories that need to be told."
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he "changed the course of American history with his journalistic decisions."
Significant free-press and free-speech precedents were established during Sulzberger's years as publisher, most notably the Times vs. Sullivan case. It resulted in a landmark 1964 Supreme Court ruling that shielded the press from libel lawsuits by public officials unless they could prove actual malice.
"Punch Sulzberger was a giant in the industry, a leader who fought to preserve the vital role of a free press in society and championed journalism executed at the highest level," said Associated Press President and CEO Gary Pruitt. "The Associated Press benefited from his wisdom, both during his years on the board of directors and his thoughtful engagement in the years that followed."
In 1971, the Times led the First Amendment fight to keep the government from suppressing the Pentagon Papers.
Sulzberger read more than 7,000 pages of the documents and presided over a dramatic internal debate before deciding to publish. Then, he resisted a demand by Attorney General John Mitchell that the paper halt the series after two installments.
A federal judge delayed publication of additional installments, but in a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court eventually sided with the Times and The Washington Post, and allowed the series to continue.
"There were those that thought some kind of deal or reconciliation with the government should have been sought," said First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, who represented the Times in the court case. "It was Punch Sulzberger who made the decision to resist the government's effort. In making that decision he set in motion a litigation which not only preserved but protected the First Amendment for generations."
In their book "The Trust," a history of the Ochs-Sulzberger family and its stewardship of the paper, Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones cited Sulzberger's "common sense and unerring instincts."
In an interview in 1990 with New York magazine, Sulzberger was typically candid about the paper's readership.
"We're not New York's hometown newspaper," he said. "We're read on Park Avenue, but we don't do well in Chinatown or the east Bronx. We have to approach journalism differently than, say, the Sarasota Herald Tribune, where you try to blanket the community."
Sulzberger was born in New York City on Feb. 5, 1926, the only son of Arthur Hays Sulzberger and his wife, Iphigene Ochs Sulzberger, Adolph's only child. One of his three sisters was named Judy, and from early on he was known as "Punch," from the puppet characters Punch and Judy.
Sulzberger's grandfather led the paper until his death in 1935, when he was followed by Sulzberger's father, who remained at the helm until he retired in 1961.
Except for a year at The Milwaukee Journal, 1953-54, the younger Sulzberger spent his entire career at the family paper after graduating from Columbia College in 1951. He worked in European bureaus for a time and was back in New York by 1955, but found he had little to do.
At various times, Sulzberger was a director or chairman of the Newspaper Advertising Bureau, American Newspaper Publishers Association and American Press Institute. He was a director of The Associated Press from 1975 to 1984.
Sulzberger married Barbara Grant in 1948, and the couple had two children, Arthur Jr. and Karen. After a divorce in 1956, Sulzberger married Carol Fox. The couple had a daughter, Cynthia, and Sulzberger adopted Fox's daughter from a previous marriage, Cathy.
Carol Sulzberger died in 1995. The following year, Sulzberger married Allison Cowles, the widow of William H. Cowles 3rd, who was the president and publisher of The Spokesman-Review and Spokane Chronicle of Spokane, Wash. She died in 2010.