Abe Rosenthal, Former 'N.Y. Times' Editor, Dies
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
A legend of American journalism has died at the age of 84. Abe Rosenthal is credited with helping The New York Times define standards of modern journalism. He died two weeks after suffering a serious stroke. His byline read A.M. Rosenthal. And he was a distinguished foreign correspondent who guided the Times through crises and triumphs as its top editor for 17 years.
Rosenthal had said that he wanted his legacy to be that he kept the paper straight. He was also known as someone who wanted to do things his way, no matter how many feathers he ruffled.
ABE ROSENTHAL: I am willful, I am arbitrary. I insist upon my having my own way. But I'm one hell of a good editor.
SIEGEL: That was Abe Rosenthal speaking on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED in 1986. Joining me now is NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. And David, what would say the New York Times of today owes to Abe Rosenthal's tenure as its editor?
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Well, in some ways, it owes a few key things to him. He helped to oversee, along with Arther Gelb, the senior editor there, the introduction of the multi- section newspaper, where you saw the proliferation of business sections, sports sections, lifestyle sections. This proved pivotal in the 1970s for the newspaper to actually make a profit, that seemed in peril.
The second thing in some ways was his introduction of key and vital standards, that is, he said there could be no personal or ideological agendas being portrayed. In one memorable phrase, and I'm cleaning it up for radio, he said, "You can cover the circus, but if you do so, you can't fool around with the elephants."
And the third in some ways is the major thing. It was, he oversaw and pushed, once Neal Sheehan, the brilliant young reporter, had obtained them, for the publication of the Pentagon papers. And these were the pivotal things in 1971 that showed that government officials had consistently lied about the basis of the entry of the U.S. into the Vietnam War in their communications with the American public. This was in doubt, it was against the advice of the senior outside counsel to the Times and it was seen as a major moment for the Times to define itself and to define what journalism could be.
SIEGEL: Now, Abe Rosenthal wrote with the byline A.M. Rosenthal. As a sign of the times, when he joined the newspaper, the New York Times, although owned by a family that was Jewish, didn't want the name Abraham appearing on its front page and if that was your name, you used your initials instead.
FOLKENFLIK: That's absolutely right. The Salsburger family, which owned and controlled the Times, was deeply ambivalent about, sort of, their Jewishness being a public issue. There was, you know, at times a recrimination about that and so there was a deep reluctance to allow that to be acknowledged on its pages.
One example of that was that until Abe Rosenthal named Tom Freedman, now the distinguished Pulitzer-winning columnist, to be a Middle Eastern correspondent, no Jewish correspondent had been allowed to do that for The Times. It took decades for that to take place.
SIEGEL: Rosenthal himself was a very distinguished foreign correspondent, reporter and a writer of great talent.
FOLKENFLIK: That's right. People might more recently remember him from his cantankerous and sometimes abrasive column that appeared in The Times and then later in The New York Daily News and The New York Sun, but he himself was a reporter and writer of great accomplishment and distinction. He was tossed out of Poland in 1959 as foreign correspondent there. The Polish government complained that he "had written very deeply and in detail about the internal situation, party and leadership matters. The Polish government cannot tolerate such probing reporting." The Pulitzer committee cited that very quote in giving him a Pulitzer Prize the next year.
SIEGEL: You've used the words cantankerous and abrasive. We heard a clip of him earlier using the words willful and arbitrary to describe himself. This was not an easy going guy.
FOLKENFLIK: Anything but. It was at times his way or the highway. He always argued that he was fighting for the best standards of journalism, but a lot of people at times felt that he was undercutting rivals and also demanding loyalty above all.
But nonetheless, even those detractors acknowledged he did many things to improve The Times in many, many ways.
SIEGEL: Thank you, David.
FOLKENFLIK: You bet.
SIEGEL: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik, talking about Abe Rosenthal, former editor of The New York Times, who has died at the age of 84.