A. M. Rosenthal

Reforming 'New York Times' editor
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The Independent Online

If today's New York Times - certainly the most influential, and some would say the best, newspaper in the world - is the handiwork of any single individual, that person is A. M. Rosenthal.

For 17 years he ran the news operation at "the Grey Lady". The paper he inherited in 1969 then lived up to its sobriquet: as authoritative and reliable as you could wish, but also plodding, formulaic, and downright tedious. The one he bequeathed to Max Frankel, his successor in the editor's chair, was not exactly flashy, and had certainly lost none of its authority. It was, on the other hand, incomparably more entertaining, accessible and comprehensive.

Rosenthal demanded good writing - and writing about topics that genuinely interested readers. He developed coverage of New York itself - a topic the Times had been accused of loftily ignoring. He both broadened foreign and domestic news, and introduced the paper's now familiar system of sections, devoting new ones to the arts, science, food, style and homes.

Under Rosenthal The New York Times was transformed into a genuinely national paper. During his tenure it harvested 24 Pulitzer Prizes, the Oscars of American journalism, sometimes scooping two or three in a single year. The editorial improvements paid off financially as well; between 1969 and 1987 revenues of the New York Times Company jumped from $238m to $1.6bn, while profits rose from a paltry $14m to $132m in the year he stepped down.

In the process he became the most influential editor in the country, his only conceivable rival Ben Bradlee at the Washington Post. The two were competitors for the story that earned both men their early reputations - the publication in 1971 of the Pentagon Papers, a vast and secret government account of a quarter-century of US involvement in Vietnam.

The initial scoop went to the Times, although the Post soon caught up. But publication, for which no one fought harder than Rosenthal, was a massive gamble, that might have ruined both papers.It paid off, and the Supreme Court decision upholding the paper's right to publish, and suppressing the government's claim to the right of "prior restraint", was a mighty landmark in the history of American press freedom.

Newspapering was not in Abe Rosenthal's blood. His father was a Belorussian Jew who emigrated to Canada in 1903, and made a living as a trapper and fur trader before moving to New York in the 1930s. They settled in the Bronx. There the young Abe went to school, was stricken with and overcame the bone-marrow disease osteomyelitis, and attended university at City College.

When he joined the campus newspaper, his life's course was set. Quickly his talents as a reporter became evident, and in 1944 he was taken on by the Times. His first major beat was the United Nations, followed by a stint in New Delhi and then in Poland - the assignment that fully revealed his gifts as a journalist.

A trip to the former Nazi extermination camp at Auschwitz revealed the personal style that made his writing so distinctive. "And so there is no news to report from Auschwitz," he told readers, as if dropping a line to a friend:

There is merely the compulsion to write about it, a compulsion that grows out of a restless feeling that to have visited Auschwitz and to have turned away without having said or written anything would be a most grievous act of discourtesy to those who died there.

After two years the Poles expelled him, but not before he had written many brave, perceptive and extraordinarily revealing pieces about the Communist regime of Wladyslaw Gomulka and life under it. His expulsion order from Warsaw authorities in 1959 was in fact a paean to his skills. He had written "very deeply and in detail about the internal situation", and the Polish government "cannot tolerate such probing reporting".

But brilliant foreign correspondents are no rarity, least of all on The New York Times. Brilliant editors are. It was Turner Catledge, the Times's then managing editor, who persuaded Rosenthal to take the plunge. He was first given the job of shaking up the paper's staid local news coverage. So successful was he that he was made Assistant Managing Editor in 1966. Three years later he became Managing Editor - in British parlance, simply "Editor".

With his horn-rimmed glasses and shock of black hair, Rosenthal ruled the newsroom like a cockerel its roost. He was the ultimate "hands on" manager, gathering all power into his hands. His volcanic eruptions of anger were legendary. Not surprisingly, he was a fiercely polarising figure. Admirers insisted that he merely imposed the highest standards, and that those who fell foul of him simply did not measure up. His detractors (often those whom Rosenthal forced to resign or sidelined) accused him of bullying and favouritism. The editor, they complained, demanded loyalty to himself, rather than the Times, and had wrecked staff morale by operating little short of a reign of terror. But no one denied his ability, or what Frankel, in his own bitter-sweet 1999 memoir, Times of My Life and My Life with the Times, would describe as Rosenthal's "brilliant instinctive news judgement".

As head of the Times's news operation, Rosenthal insisted that nothing was sacred, other than the paper's bedrock quality of objectivity, or "fairness" as he called it. Throughout his tenure Rosenthal scrupulously maintained the iron division between news and comment - indeed on the Times, the Post and many other major US papers the news pages and the op-ed section are entirely separate and independent operations.

In 1987 Rosenthal himself crossed that great divide when he stepped down as editor to join the op-ed pages, where for 12 years he wrote a column, entitled "On My Mind". Repression, human rights and scourges like the drugs trafficking were frequent topics, along with Israel and the security of the Jewish state. The tone was often passionate, but sometimes tetchy and crotchety. Later on, some wits had redubbed it "Out of My Mind".

The column ended in 1999, when Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jnr, who had succeeded his father seven years before, told him simply, "It was time." It was an unhappy ending to a 55-year career at The New York Times. Like him or loathe him, Abe Rosenthal was a titan of modern American journalism.

Rupert Cornwell