Given the richness of the material, would the life of Abe Rosenthal make a better sitcom or a tragedy? Think of casting Tim Allen to play his apish fits of newsroom fury for laughs in Oh, That’s Just Abe! Or of hiring George Clooney to trace Rosenthal’s heroic rise from sickly immigrant son of a Bronx house-painter to architect of the modern New York Times, and onward to his unhappy decline.
Justice demands both.
“A weird bastard, but a whiz of a newspaperman,” the Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee is quoted in Joseph C. Goulden’s 1988 book Fit To Print: A.M. Rosenthal and His Times.
Goulden continues where Bradlee begins:
Rosenthal is a shouter, a curser, a whiner; he keeps a “shitlist” in his head and can hold grudges for years. He is a small man physically but his rages are so violent that he intimidates persons half again his size.
Goulden’s bile goes on for 486 pages as he describes Rosenthal as weeper and egomaniac, womanizer and homophobe, chauvinist and tyrant. Other Times historians and memoirists avoid Goulden’s malice but confirm his portrait of Rosenthal as an insecure ranter who terrorized his staff and centralized all news judgment into his office.
Rosenthal joined the paper while still a college student, so the New York Times was the only adult life he had ever known as he approached the company’s mandatory retirement age of 65 in the mid-1980s. “Rosenthal gave every indication that he would not go willingly, nor would he seriously consider grooming a successor,” Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones report in their history The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times. Some staffers speculated that he thought himself the paper’s “editor-for-life,” write Tifft and Jones. “People began comparing Rosenthal to King Lear.”
When finally pastured out to the Times op-ed page by Publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger at age 64, Rosenthal embarrassed the institution he worshipped with a frenetic, lampoonable column, “On My Mind,” which dragged on for a dozen years.
Yet the ranter rescued the Times from extinction, as today’s obituaries in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times confirm. He published the Pentagon Papers and established investigative work as part of the Times mix. He “sectioned” the paper so he could expand arts, business, science, regional, and ad-friendly service sections. And he took the franchise national. As you opened your New York Times this morning or clicked to it on the Web, Abe Rosenthal’s mind reached out to greet yours.
As difficult as it may be for readers of Rosenthal’s column to believe, he possessed a literary gift. No less a stylist than Gay Talese paid homage to him in a 1980 interview, saying:
When I was on the Times, I thought there was only one man who could outwrite me—A.M. Rosenthal. … Rosenthal was better than me as a writer and as a reporter. I read everything he ever wrote, from his days as a correspondent in India and Poland and Japan, until he became metropolitan editor. A few years later I reread his clips to see if he was really as good as I thought he was. He was.
That quotation comes from City Room, Arthur Gelb’s 2003 Times memoir. When Rosenthal became metropolitan editor in 1963, he appointed Gelb his deputy, and Gelb complains of how stodgy, hidebound, and inhibited Times coverage was. To fully appreciate its blandness, go to a library and crank through a few reels of ancient Times microfilm.
Abe and I made it our first priority to free reporters of their perceived writing restrictions, encouraging them to try new approaches, to experiment with their own styles the way we both had tried to do. We pressed them to use similes, imagery, vivid descriptions and lively quotes, assuring them we would protect their stories against the itchy pencils of literal-minded copy editors.
Later, sensing progress, Rosenthal memoed his troops:
We do have quite a number of reporters who can write attractively, but some of them seem to have a kind of schizophrenia. When they’re writing a feature story, their typewriters come alive. But when they’re handling a straight news story, they seem to forget everything they ever knew about writing. I am not talking about turning news stories into feature stories but simply about giving news events some writing attention and the sense of immediacy that really is a part of the story.
The tragedy—or comedy—of Rosenthal’s teaching moment would soon come as he became the paper’s top editor in 1968. Having encouraged reporters to use their voice on local stories when he edited the metro section, he was quickly dismayed to find independent thinking, i.e., rank examples of editorializing and attitude, nearly everywhere he looked in the paper. A 1969 Rosenthal memo reproduced in Ed Diamond’s 1993 book Behind the Times: Inside the New New York Times states:
I get the impression, reading the Times, that the image we give of America is largely of demonstrations, discrimination, anti-war movements, rallies, protests, etc.
As someone who lived through that tumultuous year, America was largely a place of demonstrations, discrimination, anti-war movements, rallies, protests, etc. Imagining otherwise was fantasy.
Again and again, Rosenthal would say he was making crooked Times coverage “straight.” But some reporters sensed that Rosenthal and company weren’t promoting accuracy as much as they were imposing their political views on the paper’s stories, writes Diamond. For most of his 17 years at the helm, Rosenthal battled what he considered the left-liberal tendencies of many of his reporters. He growls about his Washington bureau reporters quoting congressional liberals more often or more favorably than conservatives. Reading a 1979 piece about the 10th anniversary of Woodstock, he recoiled at its description of the event as a symbol of “national, cultural, and political awakening.” He distrusted as partisan the reporting of Raymond Bonner and pulled him out of Central America. He gave an extraordinary mandate to freelancer Claire Sterling to connect the Soviets to organized terrorism, presumably because nobody inside the paper could—or would—pursue the angle. “It was said, on the record and off the record, by the staff and by outside critics that Abe Rosenthal was a homophobe. Supposedly, the newsroom explicitly understood this, and as a result, the Times initially ‘ignored’ the AIDS epidemic,” Diamond writes.
Was Rosenthal a beast? When Sulzberger yanked him in 1986 and sent Max Frankel in, he offered this prayer: “Make the newsroom a happy place again.”
As a former boss of mine loves to say, journalism isn’t a Montessori school: Reporters should expect to get their heads cracked from time to time, and if they don’t like it they should build up calluses or wear protective headgear. But nothing in that maxim states that an editor hasn’t done his job unless he’s swung on a couple of dozen of his employees each day. Rosenthal somehow confused discipline with punishment, and as I read his obits today and thumbed through the Times histories I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
If you wear protective headgear, make sure to tip the helmet forward to cover your temples. Too many reporters wear their helmets on the back of their skulls like a halo or yarmulke. Send your cranial self-defense tips via e-mail to email@example.com.