Abe Rosenthal: His Life and Times

How many times, I wondered as the phone rang, had Abe Rosenthal dragged others to the telephone after midnight? Wouldn't he expect his own reporters to show the same tenacity in obtaining a story? But Rosenthal's muffled "hello" and his ensuing crankiness were excusable. He temporarily forgot the many times he had been on the other end of the phone.

As managing editor of The New York Times, A.M. Rosenthal is the potentate most directly responsible for The Times's content and news display. His influence reaches far beyound New York--as The Times goes, so goes a large part of the American press.

On 43rd Street in New York, just off Times Square, the traffic is stopped periodically as semi trucks back delicately into narrow garage openings. There, they unload huge rolls of newsprint to feed The Times's hungry presses, which each year consume five million trees. Emblazoned in gold near the entrance on the inside lobby wall is the creed,

"To give the news impartially Without fear or favor. Regardless of any party, Sect or interest involved."

The newsroom on the third floor of the 14-story Times building is a block long, Rosenthal told me nonchalantly the bright May morning we met there. The M.E. made a slight sweeping motion with his hand, nonchalantly emphasizing the words "block long." That was the extent of my tour. There was little time for Rosenthal to escort a tourist through the one-and-one third acres of grey metal desks, typewriters, telephones and teletypes.

As newsroom czar, Rosenthal oversees 300 metropolitan reporters, 35 Washington correspondents, 20 national, 32 foreign and 400 part-time contributors around the country.

Three weeks before, Rosenthal had visited Boston. His lecture at the Harvard Faculty Club, an address for the Nieman Fellows (journalists who take a sabbatical year at Harvard), was scheduled tentatively, depending on an absence of any national crises that might require his attention.

After the Nieman dinner--a five-hour session of cocktails, roast beef, wine and more cocktails--Rosenthal headed for bed at the Statler-Hilton Hotel. Just after he fell asleep, the phone rang. I apologized for calling so late an hour.

Our post-midnight conversation went something like this: Me: "Mr. Rosenthal, I want to write this story as soon as possible. Could I see you early tomorrow morning to confirm some things you said tonight and ask some additional questions?"

Rosenthal: "No, I'm sorry I'm all booked with appointments tomorrow morning."

Me: "I wanted to talk with you before you left for New York."

Rosenthal: "About what?"

Me: "Well, specifically I was especially interested in your criticism of other newspapers. You said something about how there are only about a dozen decent newspapers in the country and none of them are that good? Why is that?"

Rosenthal: "I didn't say that, and as you recall I said I didn't like to go around criticizing other newspapers."

Me: "Well, what is your criticism about other newspapers in general?"