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Abe Rosenthal, Letting Go
Criticism Dogs The New York Times Editor
Over Power, Politics and Personality
Second of Three Articles
By Eleanor Randolph
Washington Post Staff Writer
For two decades, A.M. Rosenthal, a brilliant, emotional and driven man, has been increasingly responsible for one of the great institutions in America, The New York Times.
Rosenthal has presided over a period of sweeping change at The Times, shoving a tradition-bound newspaper into the late 20th century. He has vastly improved its writing, expanded its influence beyond the eastern elite, watched his staff win 16 Pulitzer Prizes and basked in the glory and power that come to the executive editors of Americaâ€™s newspaper of records.
But as he moves toward his mandatory retirement in 1987, the reviews of Rosenthalâ€™s era have been less than kind. In print and in private conversations among his reporters and editors, Rosenthal has been the subject of sharp attack.
During a recent interview in his small, inner office, a sanctuary of soft couches and morning light diluted by a Japanese screen over the window, Rosenthal suggested several reasons why he has drawn such venom, including his personality and his relentless drive to expand and improve the paper. But the key reason, he believes, is political the prejudice of an intellectual elite that refuses to tolerate any diversion from the conventional liberal line.
â€œIf you look at the source of the attacks, not all of them, but many of them, they are obviously political, Rosenthal said. â€œThey come from the nation and, The Village Voice, and thereâ€™s a cycle:
â€œSome people have been writing about me for 20 years. Some guy wrote about me, I forgot his name, for the Washington Journalism Review, I donâ€™t know who it was, but see, he used to work for The Village Voice. As soon as I found that out, I knew I was wasting my time to talk to him, so I didnâ€™t.â€
Rosenthal was talking about Robert Kuttner, who worked for The Voice from 1972 to 1973 but was also a frequent contributor to The New York Times Sunday Magazine. In an article on the generational changes coming at The Times and The Washington Post, Kuttner wrote of The Times: â€œIn a way, the paper now has an autocratic editor-in-chief and a vast, timid bureaucracy under him. It is not Rosenthalâ€™s bark that engenders such fear, it is his Bite.â€ Soon after he wrote about Rosenthal in the Washington Journalism Review, Kuttner said in a recent interview, he received a call from a â€œjunior editorâ€ of The New York Times Book Review section, asking him to review a book on economic equity.
â€œI said, â€˜Gee, Iâ€™m surprised and delighted to get this phone call,â€ Kuttner recalled. â€œThen there was this pause and the editor asked, â€˜Why?â€ And I said â€˜Well, I have the cover piece in WJR this month, and it really doesnâ€™t mince any words about the situation at The Times.â€ And the editor said they needed it anyway and to go ahead and do the assignment.
â€œThree minutes later the phone rang again and this editor says, â€œThanks very much for calling this to our attention,â€™ and said they didnâ€™t want me to do the review after all and then added what was really the clincher. â€œIt would have been very embarrassing to have to turn down your review.â€™â€ In other words, the editor was glad to be able to wave Kuttner off before heâ€™d written the piece since there was little chance that one of Rosenthalâ€™s public critics would be published again in The Times.
Said Kuttner: â€œThatâ€™s really how that place works.â€
The perception that Rosenthal uses the Times to advance his own views is one that especially galls him. â€œI do have power,â€ he said, â€œbut like all other people on this paper, and I believe on other papers like The Post, I donâ€™t have the ultimate power, the real power. That is, I do not have the power to reward my friends or punish my enemies. I canâ€™t get you a good book review. I canâ€™t use The Times to attack, let us say, left-wing or right-wing publications. I canâ€™t do those things.â€
But if Rosenthal believes strongly that his personal whims are kept in They cite an â€œEditorâ€™s Noteâ€ on the Index page of The Times a check, his critics, on the paper and off, argue the opposite just as vehemently. They cite an â€œEditorâ€™ Noteâ€ on the Index page of The Times a device institute by Rosenthal to allow occasional clarifications or second thought on Times decisions. Published last summer about a story on real estate developer Mortimer Zuckerman, the Editorsâ€™ Note chastised Times reporter Jane Perlez, without naming her, for the article, which â€œestablished a tone that cast its subject in an unfavorable lightâ€ and â€œviolated The Timeâ€™s standards of fairness.â€
Inside The Time many viewed the notes a devastating rebuke to Perlez that was unfair since several Times editors had signed off on her story. Outside the paper, the reaction was even stronger. Newsweek called it â€œobsequiousâ€ toward Zuckerman, and Newsday columnist Murray Kempton called it â€œgenuine rudeness to Perlez.â€
â€œI wouldnâ€™t have done it any differently,â€ Rosenthal responded, saying that he did not personally write the Editors Note. â€œThe intent to say that the story was unfairly written, that it was a story we didnâ€™t care for, I would do that again, even knowing the outpouring.
â€œIt has nothing to do with powerful people. This is the fantasy of people who donâ€™t run things. It takes a lot more guts to write an Editorsâ€™ Note about important people. If you correct a story about (former secretary of state Henry) Kissinger or Zuckerman, people are going to go for you, even some intelligent people.
â€œThe idea that Zuckerman could persuade me to do something, itâ€™s crazy. Whoâ€™s Zuckerman? Itâ€™s crazy. I met him two or three times at dinner,â€ he said. â€œWhen people do this, they tell more about themselves, saying they would bow to the pressure or kiss somebodyâ€™s feet if they were in this situation, but Iâ€™m not they.â€
The Times under Rosenthal has also been criticized for misusing its overwhelming influence in New Yorkâ€™s culture world, where a hostile Times review can close a play on opening night or stunt a new book virtually at birth. Richard Eder, now at the Los Angeles Times, said in an interview he was â€œsackedâ€ ass The Times Theater critics because he crossed swords with Rosenthal and Deputy Managing Editor Arthur Gelb, Whom Eder described as Rosenthalâ€™s close friend and alter ego on cultural matters.
Eder said his troubles at The Times began with his 1978 review of the musical â€œDancingâ€™. â€œBefore the show,â€ he recalled, â€œGelb came to me and said this is a very big dancing show as well as a theater show. You write whatever you think about the theater and (ballet critics) Anna Kisselgoff will do the dancing.â€ In any event, Ederâ€™s review was not flattering and the next day he got word that Gelb and Rosenthal were unhappy about it. Kisselgoffâ€™s review, which sources said was also a pan, was never printed.
Gelb said he did not kill the Kisselgoff review but that it was postponed and then became outdated.
â€œThere is a time when it looks as though we could really go out of our way to get somebody, and you canâ€™t do that,â€ Gelb said. â€œItâ€™s a very powerful paper, and I tell writers itâ€™s okay or itâ€™s sometimes necessary to knock someone down but you canâ€™t kick someone in the stomach once theyâ€™re down.
â€œWe can be a tough newspaper, but weâ€™re not a cruel paper,â€ he said.
And of his friend Rosenthal, Gelb added: â€œIn every field, in every arty, if you talk to an artist who has a very keen mind, you will find they are very restless. Anyone who is truly creative has a restlessness and natural impatience with others.â€
During his years as an editor, Rosenthal has become famous for his emotional restlessness in dealing with his staff a subject most of those working for him refused to discuss on the record, even those who thought the same impatience that made him a brilliant editor also made him a different, unpredictable boss.
It is a method of running a newspaper that can produce good copy but can also create havoc with the personal lives of those who work for Rosenthal and whose emotional existence often mirrors his effusive, loving praise or dreaded ostracism.
Nan Robertson, a 30 year veteran of the paper and one of the few who were willing to be quoted by name, said that Rosenthal and her husband, Stanley Levey, were longtime â€œLoving friends.â€ When Levey had a massive heart attack in 1970 and was forced to stay in a Turkish hospital three months, Rosenthal would send messages almost daily â€œwilling him to be okay.
â€œI could sense Abe just breathing at the end of the telexes,â€ Robertson recalled.
Brought home, Robertsonâ€™s husband got â€œenormous support and love from Abe,â€ as she put it, and after he died, Rosenthal helped her cope with the loss, not only as her editor but as her friend.
Through her own illness and near death from toxic shock syndrome, she said, Rosenthal offered her strong, nourishing support, and Rosenthal and Gelb encouraged her to write about it in a magazine story that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983. Her friendship with the executive editor continued, Robertson said, until she joined a group of Times people who sent a letter in August 1984 to Times Publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger. The Letter protested Rosenthalâ€™s treatment of reporter Richard Severo, who was demoted after he sold a book to a publisher other than Times Books.
Rosenthal the close family friend suddenly became Rosenthal the stranger, distant and â€œcorrect,â€ Robertson said. â€œHe considers a public disagreement a personal betrayal.â€
Then, growing emotional, Robertson added another layer: â€œI dream that we are friends again. I could not have done it any other way. But, itâ€™s hurt for me, a sorrow.â€
Facing head on the negative reactions to him, Rosenthal said recently: â€˜Iâ€™ve thought a lot about it, a great, great deal about it. How did it happen?
â€œIâ€™ve divided it into percentages,â€ he said. â€œX percentage, maybe 15 percent, rests on my own personality, that is a tendency to erupt, to forget that what I might consider sarcasm or (not) affectionate sarcasm,â€ he said.
â€œA man once said to me, stopped me in the newsroom, a copy editor, a man I barely knew, had read an article about how people hated me, and I think it was The Village Voice or something, and he said, â€œI donâ€™t believe thatâ€™. He said, â€œOf course, sometimes you are polarized.â€
â€œAnd I said what means polarized? And he said sometimes youâ€™re a father whoâ€™s very loving and sometimes the same person becomes very tough. I understood what he was saying, and I know that they are both true. I donâ€™t feel a tough man. I feel driven, I mean driving man. I donâ€™t feel a tough man, â€œhe said.
For Rosenthal, The Times has been his love and obsession, the essence of his life, in many ways.
Describing the paper at one point as a smorgasbord â€œfull of all kinds of delicious thingsâ€ and supported with a veritable trout farm of good writers, Rosenthal suddenly began to laugh about his portrait of The Times.
â€œI always talk about The Times either in terms of food or sex, I just realized thatâ€ he said. â€œI either say itâ€™s a smorgasbord or I say itâ€™s like a spouse or a lover. You can argue with it, you can quarrel with it, but in the end, you have to love it or at least like it very much.â€
For some, writing for The New York Times is indeed such a joy, an attachment to a great journalistic establishment so exhilarating that any personal sacrifice can be justified. But others think Rosenthal goes too far when he insists that members of his staff accept the paper as such a demanding mistress at least on a par with oneâ€™s spouse.
The issue has arisen sharply at The Times as the paper wanted to transfer someone whose working spouse was reluctant to move. Times staff members involved in such cases have said that Rosenthalâ€™s own love for The Times makes it more difficult for him to understand those whose attachment is less overwhelming.
The most visible case of such an impasse involved David Shribman, a talented young writer who came to The Times from The Washington Sat when The Star folded in 1981. On the fast track for young reporters, Shribman was working in Washington in 1984 when Rosenthal proposed sending him to East Africa. Shribman reportedly told Rosenthal that he needed time to work out a transfer because his wife had just gotten a job at U.S. News & World Report.
Not long afterward Shribman received word that he was being offered one of Rosenthalâ€™s cherished journalism shrines a staff job at the United Nations where Rosenthal once worked. When Shribman explained again that his wife did not want to leave Washington, he was ordered to report to the New York metro Staff, a personal shift that is widely viewed at The Times as a sign of Rosenthalâ€™s displeasure.
Instead, Shribman quit and was quickly hired by The Wall Street Journal in Washington.
In Rosenthalâ€™s view, though his demanding nature or sometimes harsh personality are incidental reasons for the increasing outcry against his stewardship. Another reason, one that he believes also affects the internal situation at the paper, is that he became â€œthe agent of change,â€ as he puts it, when he took over as metropolitan editor in 1963.
â€œIâ€™d say, Hey, letâ€™s do it this way,â€ or â€œIâ€™ve got an as great idea. Letâ€™s change everything. I didnâ€™t understand that when to somebody, Letâ€™s do it this way now that what I was really saying was that the way youâ€™ve been doing it was not good enough for me,â€ he said.
â€œSo I expected them to say, Gee good, terrific, Abe, thatâ€™s a sensational idea and theyâ€™d say instead, â€œWhat the hell is this guy doing?â€
Many of those interviewed, both Rosenthalâ€™s detractors and his admirers, said that it was the very changing of the structure, both to vastly improve the writing and shear away some of the pomposity of the old Times, that will be the most important part of his legacy.
The overriding reason for the criticisms, Rosenthal said, is political.
â€œThere (is) a very strong political element involved in this, which if you donâ€™t understand, you donâ€™t understand what is going on,â€ Rosenthal said of these attacks. â€œA lot of people have very, very strong political opinions. If The New York Times does not do its duty as they see its duty they get very, very, upset.â€
Later, he added: â€œItâ€™s very political, and I mean political left and right. Iâ€™m perceived, somewhat to my astonishment, as a man of the right. Iâ€™m a centrist on many things, which means I am left and right.â€
Rosenthal acknowledge that he has turned the paper slightly to the right, comparing his accomplishment to straightening out a huge ocean liner, countermanding what he saw as a slight tilt to the left.
But for some, Rosenthalâ€™s effort to straighten out the politics has led to an odd irony. They see Rosenthal hiring and promoting serval reporters who are known to be conservatives, and thus abandoning the traditional journalistic goal of seeking straight reporting.
When the Washington bureau was summoned to dinner with Rosenthal at Duke Zeibertâ€™s restaurant this fall the executive editor stunned some veteran reporter asking how many of them considered themselves â€œright of centerâ€ a question that has usually seemed irrelevant to reporters, who try to separate their political opinions from their work.
Two reporters raised their hands, while many of the rest remained puzzled or indignant about the question.
â€œSomebody said from the back of the room, Hey are you really leading the paper to the right? â€œRosenthal recalled recently.â€ â€œAnd I said, Yes if by leading to the right, you mean have I (changed) it from what I think is slightly off course to what I think it should be, that is absolutely right,â€ he said.
It is that change that he says provokes the loudest outcry against him and also some praise from unexpected quarters.
In an article in the Heritage Foundationâ€™s Policy Review magazine, conservative writer Dinesh Dâ€™Souza praised Rosenthal for â€œa distinctly American comebackâ€ at The Times. He said the paper was â€œreaffirming its greatness by retreating from the radicalism of the last two decades and once again taking up responsible journalism.â€
â€œYeah, they praised me for my anticommunist crusade, and I said, Jesus Christ, thatâ€™s all I need.â€ Rosenthal laughed, shaking his head.
For his critics the paper, a number of Rosenthalâ€™s personal moves seem to have been politically motivated. They mention, among others, the hiring of former Miami Herald reporter Shirley Christian; John Vinocur, who yesterday was named metropolitan editor, and the elevation of John Corry to television critics.
These are all people whose past writings, the critics claim, identify them as conservatives. All three, however, resist the label. Vinocur said, â€œI feel Iâ€™m a journalist and not an ideologue in any way.â€ Said Corry â€œI think itâ€™s absurd.â€ He said that his wife, Sonia Landau, chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was a key figure in Reaganâ€™s reelection hasnâ€™t asked me who I voted for,â€ Corry said.
Christian, who has been working in The Timesâ€™ Washington office, said Iâ€™ve never thought of myself as having a political orientation. Iâ€™m not a Washington person, and I really resent the tendency of Washington reporters to categorize people in liberal or conservative terms.â€
Christian angered many journalists covering Central America when she criticized reporters from The Washington Post, The Times and CBS in a Washington Journalism Review articles in March 1982 for seeing the war against Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza through â€œa romantic hazeâ€ and of getting on the Sandinista bandwagon.â€
Times reporter Alan Riding, now Christian colleague replied in the next issue that journalists â€œdid not invent the hope that (the Sandinistas) generated among Nicaraguans, we merely reported it. And when man Nicaraguans subsequently felt disenchanted, we reported that too.â€
â€œShirley Christian was iconoclastic about the Sandinistas, an offense for which she is now paying. â€œ Rosenthal said. â€œI wish there were more reporters who are also so iconoclastic.â€
Itâ€™s okay to be iconoclastic of the right. Itâ€™s not okay to be iconoclastic of the liberals, of whom we are all,â€ Rosenthal said in the interview. â€œWhat the hell do you think I am, a fascist?â€
â€œSure, I find myself on the right sometimes politically and sometimes on the left, but itâ€™s a very interesting thing. It really shows you the intense obsession and the power of the left, because with almost nothing to point to they have kept up this campaign,â€ he said.
The appearance of an article by Claire Sterling on the front page was also widely criticized inside the paper as the use of an advocate to write â€œnewsâ€ on this case a fervent advocate of the theory that Mehmet Ali Aga executed a Soviet-sponsored plot to assassinate the pope.
Pete Hamill said in an article on The Times in The Village Voice that with the use of Sterlingâ€™s pieces â€œthe news columns had been violated by a right-wing theorist in a way that Rosenthal would never tolerate from a writer on the left.â€
â€œI donâ€™t feel it was a piece of advocacy journalism, even though I think Claire herself is an advocate of the point of view,â€ Rosenthal said. â€œThere is a difference, and I thought y=that was a carefully documented piece. Whenever there was an opinion stated, we adopted a technique of putting it in brackets and putting her initials after it.â€
Like other reporters who have heard about Rosenthalâ€™s drive to hire more conservatives, David Halberstam, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of â€œThe Best and the Brightest,â€™ talks with some anguish about Rosenthal and the paper he once worked for:
Itâ€™s always been an enormously centrist, quite traditional, quite conservative institution. Itâ€™s a classic establishment paper, hardly a left-wing paper.
â€œAbe, it seems to me, is an immensely conflicted man. He is a talented man who is the editor of a very good newspaper and he was a wonderful reporter himself, but there is something inside him politically now as heâ€™s gotten older that is a dislike of many of the things that have happened in this country and there world.
â€œAnd that puts him at odds with what his own best reporters write, and heâ€™s a constant tension with his own best people, almost as if he were in tension with the young Abe Rosenthal,â€ Halberstam said.
The Source of the greatest tension in Rosenthalâ€™s life now, according to many friends and colleagues, is the fact that he will evidently have to give up the editorship of The Times sometimes in 1987.
As his term comes to an end, friends and acquaintances who have seen him at social events in Manhattan describe a Rosenthal who aches to evade an age limit that his corporation puts on men of his stature a rule that, if strictly enforced as expected, will require him to step down next year.
Rosenthal may have unwittingly described some of his own feelings about The times when he wrote about former U.N. secretary-general Trygve Lie in a reminiscence about early days at the United Nations, too much until he could not distinguish between it and him and spent his last years there in hurt anger.â€
Some friends have tried to support Rosenthal by lobbying Sulzberger why Rosenthal had to leave, Sulzberger is said to have smiled and replied: â€œBecause I say so.â€
Other friends find Rosenthalâ€™s despair baffling. Said writer Richard Clurman, â€œI, like his other close friends, am absolutely perplexed about why after heâ€™s done this great newspaper editors in history why he canâ€™t honor his past and go on to his agreeable future.â€
Originally published: Tuesday, July 25, 2017; most-recently modified: Monday, May 13, 2019