Though he had more than his share of detractors during and after his years as managing and then executive editor of The New York Times, can there be any doubt that the paper began its precipitous and still ongoing decline the moment A.M. Rosenthal was forced, by company policy, to retire in 1986 at age 65?
With Rosenthal’s birthday (he would have been 89 on May 2) and the fifth anniversary of his death (May 10) both coming up in a few weeks, it seems appropriate to revisit some of the Monitor’s reflections on the occasion of his passing in 2006.
When Abraham Michael Rosenthal’s byline began appearing in The New York Times back in the 1940s, 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, 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; under his leadership 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 nearly 1,000-page history of the Times and its owners, 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.”
Rosenthal had his flaws, to be sure. 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 (a study of the paper’s evolution under Rosenthal’s stewardship),is that of an executive editor who was astonishingly lenient with some of his subordinates while itching to pull the trigger on others, though primarily for reasons of personality rather than politics.
According to former Times reporter John Corry, Rosenthal, at the time the paper’s metropolitan editor, was all too easily charmed by John Lindsay when the latter ran for mayor in 1965, to the point of ditching all pretense of journalistic objectivity in full sight of his subordinates as he jubilantly hugged assistant metropolitan editor Arthur Gelb on election night, 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 Rosenthal in general made the Times a fairer, better-balanced newspaper than it had been before he took over – and certainly than it has been since he left the editor’s chair.
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.
And Rosenthal was the prime mover in getting the Times to introduce weekly supplements pegged to individual news categories (sports, science, lifestyles, etc.) that upon their debut in the 1970s 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 New York Times that permanently altered his byline, in the end it was Abe Rosenthal who permanently altered The New York Times.
Jason Maoz can be reached at email@example.com.