When reporter Abraham Michael Rosenthal’s byline began appearing in The New York Times back in the 1940’s, the sensitivities of the paper’s owners – German Jews of the fully assimilated “Our Crowd” variety – dictated that he use the initials A.M. in place of his glaringly ethnic first name.
By the time he stepped down as executive editor nearly four decades later, A.M. Rosenthal could take credit for some of the most sweeping changes ever implemented in the nation’s premier newspaper.
During his first 20 years at the Times, Rosenthal reported from locations as diverse as the United Nations, Africa, Poland, India and Vietnam. His work in Poland won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1960, one year after he’d been expelled from the country for his brutally frank coverage of the Polish government.
Rosenthal’s experience as a foreign correspondent was followed by a steady rise through the Times’s managerial ranks. It was as executive editor that he left his most enduring mark, a fact long acknowledged by admirers and detractors alike (and there were always plenty in both categories).
A familiar complaint about the Times in the years before Rosenthal took charge was that the liberal views expounded in the paper’s editorials seemed at times to creep into the news articles. But under Rosenthal’s stewardship the Times achieved new levels of objectivity in its reporting – so much so that some liberal staffers accused Rosenthal of tilting too far to the right.
Rosenthal was suspicious of his younger reporters’ political views. Joseph Lelyveld, a future Times executive editor, told Susan Tifft and Alex Jones, authors of The Trust, a monumental history of the Times, that Rosenthal “tended to regard [them] as being naturally left wing. Abe would always say, with some justice, that you have to keep your hand on the tiller and steer it to the right or it’ll drift off to the left.”
While Rosenthal may have been wary of those staffers he considered prone to injecting personal agendas into their stories, there is no real evidence that ideology played any role in the hiring, firing, or promoting of news personnel.
The picture one gets from Joseph C. Goulden’s none-too-flattering Fit To Print (the only full-length biography of Rosenthal to date), as well as from the late media critic Edwin Diamond’s Behind The Times, is that of an executive editor who was astonishingly lenient with some of his subordinates while itching to pull the trigger on others – primarily for reasons of personality, not politics.
Rosenthal had his flaws, to be sure. He was, according to former Times reporter John Corry, all too easily charmed by John Lindsay when the latter ran for mayor in 1965, to the point of jubilantly hugging metropolitan editor Arthur Gelb on election night and yelling “We’ve won.”
And Times watchers who are less than enamored of the paper’s foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman have Rosenthal to thank for solicitously watching over Friedman’s ascent at the paper.
Still, there is no denying that the Times during Rosenthal’s tenure was in general a fairer, better-balanced newspaper than it had been before he took over – and, for that matter, than it has been since he relinquished the reins in 1987.
Under Rosenthal the Times became a more readable newspaper, the dense gray corporate prose that had long been the paper’s trademark giving way to a snappier, more personalized style.
Rosenthal was also the prime mover in getting the Times to introduce the weekly supplements pegged to individual news categories (sports, science, lifestyles, etc.) that upon their debut in the mid-1970’s immediately gave new life to what had become a sleepy format.
All things considered, the irony inherent in Rosenthal’s tenure at the paper is inescapable: Whereas in the beginning it was the Times that permanently altered his byline, in the end it was Abe Rosenthal who permanently altered the Times.