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?"

Rosenthal (impatiently): "Look, this whole thing (dinner) was supposed to be off-the-record, wasn't it?"

Me: "Yes, until you told me I could use your remarks."

Rosenthal (again): "Wasn't this supposed to be off-the-record?"

Me: "Yes, but that was before you told me I could use your remarks. I just wanted to know your criticism of newspapers in general."

Rosenthal: "They're not printing enough news and there are problems of reduction."

Me (Pause): "Reduction?"

Rosenthal (angrily): "PRODUCTION Listen, I really have no intention of talking about this right now. If you want to come down to New York, fine. Make an appointment with my office."

Me (trying to fix the damage): "Okay, I'm sorry. Have a good sleep."

Even though it was after midnight, Rosenthal would be up in a matter of hours. He describes himself as an insomniac, who wakes up around four or five in the morning, regardless of how late he goes to bed. The first thing he does each day is dictate into his "anxiety box," a dictaphone that he hands over to his secretary to transcribe when he reaches his office around 10:15 a.m. There he will stay until around 7:30 p.m. His evenings are often spent out with his wife and friends, he says.

Barely an hour before midnight the night that I called him, I had asked Rosenthal if it would be all right to use his Nieman dinner comments for an article. Nieman dinners are traditionally off-the-record.

"Sure," Rosenthal said, "Use it all." Putting his arm around me with bacchanalian warmth, he graciously invited me to "Come down to the Times" and see him.

Earlier that evening, he had declared he does not believe in "this off-the-record stuff"--he said it twice, in fact, during his ruminations on The Times and the state of American journalism.

The Niemans listened attentively to a man for whom many of them would like to work. The first question they put to Rosenthal was why there isn't a permanent Times bureau in China. Because, he said, Communist China has asked The Times, the old grey lady of the press, to prostitute herself, demanding that the paper deny advertising space to Nationalist China or other "enemies" of the People's Republic.

"China is trying to deal with The New York Times as if The Times is a government," Rosenthal said.

But the irascible king pin of the country's number one newspaper saved his severest criticism for those of his own profession.

"There are maybe a dozen good newspapers in the country," Rosenthal told his fellow-journalists. "Most newspapers are bad simply because they are not printing enough news. Publishers are not spending enough money to gather the news. The consumer who would complain about watered milk doesn't complain about a watered newspaper."

Rosenthal cited a survey by the American Newspaper Publishers Association showing that 8 per cent of all newspaper space is devoted to comics and only 2 per cent to foreign news.

After lamenting the lack of openings for young reporters at The Times, Rosenthal said that he personally interviews all new employees. So what kind of people does Rosenthal hire? "I wouldn't hire the greatest writer on earth if I wasn't satisfied as to his character," Rosenthal told the Fellows. To Rosenthal, character means people who are "straight" (honest) and who "will devote their lives to us."

"I demand understanding of what The New York Times is, and if you don't understand it you don't work for the Times," Rosenthal said.

So what is The New York Times? It is a paper with a crankiness for detail that its 800,000-plus readers trust will give them a closer version of the truth than that in any other newspaper.

As the wine began to flow more freely, so did Rosenthal's praise and passion for The Times. At one point he called the city room a mental circus.

"The staff of The Times is our greatest resource," he said. "The truth about the riches of The Times is that when I walk out of my office I'm surrounded by the most interesting people you could imagine, colleagues of such vitality, devotion and character. As a banker friend once said to me, "If you feel that way about your colleagues, then you've got it made."

We'll fight sometimes," Rosenthal said, "but we love each other."

Rising from the dinner table, the top Timesman asked rhetorically whether he had yelled at too many people, and added, "I know I was maudlin, but I really meant it."

And then in a parting flourish, the M.E. declared, "Remember, truth and justice will triumph over all."

***

Rosenthal is the son of a reluctant house painter, a Russian immigrant who was forced to give up fur trapping and trading in Canada and move to the Bronx during the Depression.

"As a teenager, Rosenthal suffered from osteomyelitis, a bone disease, walking at times with crutches or a cane. The disease forced him to drop out of school for two years. After one operation, he was erroneously told he would never walk again, but he regained the use of his legs after treatment as a charity patient at the Mayo clinic.

In 1943, after working on his campus newspaper, Rosenthal became City College correspondent for The Times for $12 a week. Soon--as was customary for neophyte Times reporters in those days--Rosenthal was attending church services and writing brief accounts of the sermons. He was a full-fledged staff member at 21.

In 1946, the young reporter was given the newly-created United Nations as his beat. In the early heyday of the U.N. his stories often reached the prestigious front page.

Eight years later, Rosenthal began what has since been frequently described as a brilliant career as a foreign correspondent. According to Times chronicler Gay Talese, the extreme poverty Rosenthal found in India gave the Bronx correspondent a sense of nagging discomfort and guilt about his comparative affluence.

It was then on to Poland for the red-hot reporter. But not for long, as he was expelled from that country in 1959. Rosenthal says now that the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs told him they did not challenge the accuracy of his stories, but that he had "written very deeply and in detail about the internal situation...and the Polish government cannot tolerate such reporting."

Rosenthal was consoled by a Pulitzer prize awarded for "excellence in foreign reporting." Writing to his close friend Arthur Gelb, now the Times's assistant managing editor, Rosenthal remarked facetiously about his prize that it was "a little small, but the thought was there."

Next, Rosenthal picked up his trenchcoat and headed for Japan, where he stayed until 1962 when he was brought back to New York to become city editor.

After stints as assistant, then associate, managing editor (when he actually served as untitled managing editor), Rosenthal finally received the official title, Managing Editor. The year was 1969. Rosenthal was 47 years old. By 1976, another promotion would bring Rosenthal to the zenith of his power: complete control over both the Sunday and the daily editions of The New York Times.

During my half hour interview with him, Rosenthal stayed accessible to his staff, never closing the office door. In his office there is a long wooden table surrounded by chairs, where in a daily ritual at 4 p.m., the Times's editors present the news to their boss.

Rosenthal was smiling pleasantly. He looked relaxed and was obviously trying to put his younger visitor at ease, as he launched into one of his favorite topics, the freedom of the press. He perceives the recent gag orders that prohibit the press from reporting on certain trials, or aspects of them, as serious threats to the publication of the truth.

The, turning a critical eye at The Times, he admitted that many articles are too long and sometimes too wordy; but of the thousands of letters written to the Times in the last 13 years, he said, "I never received a complaint that the Times printed too much information. It's always, 'Give me more, not less.' "

Rosenthal acknowledged that The Times, like many other big-city newspapers, has recently had financial difficulties, but he brushed off a recent story in New York magazine that predicted "Bad News in Store for The New York Times." The magazine piece suggested that an almost inevitable slashing of the Time's $31 million editorial budget was in the cards, a cut "which would reduce the paper to a little more than another metropolitan daily living off wire copy for anything happening more than 25 miles from City Hall."

Rosenthal said that in five years people will laugh at the article, adding that "magazines like New York make a living out of predicting disaster."

In fact, The Times has been hurt by New York City's weak economy and high unemployment level, which has caused a large drop in help-wanted ads. In addition, the exodus of readers to the suburbs has caused a drop in circulation.

Between 1970 and 1975, the Time's advertising linage fell from 77 to 69 million lines a day, while average daily circulation declined from 908,500 to 828,000. Pre-tax income dropped from $11 million in 1974 to $4.6 million in 1975.

But first quarter financial reports for 1976 have been encouraging. Advertising held steady in comparison with first quarter figures for the previous year. Pre-tax net income is also up to $1.9 million, compared to $1.2 million in 1975.

The first quarter improvement can be attributed to more aggressive promotion efforts, higher advertising rates and an increase in the price of both the daily and Sunday Times.

Rosenthal maintained that The Times will be around until "after the Statue of Liberty." He said the challenge is "to maintain The New York Times as The New York Times," and not to take such cost-reducing measures as cutting the staff or accepting more ads in place of news.

*

Seven floors above Rosenthal's office is a quiet little room that houses "The Museum of the Printed Word." Enshrined there are newspapers ranging from several printed on Guttenberg's press to The Times's front page proclaiming the first moonwalk. For a moment, the maxim "Today's newspaper will wrap tomorrow's fish" seems less believable.

As I rode down in the elevator I smiled again at what Rosenthal had told me as he greeted me in his office. Right off he mentioned that midnight phone call. He said it had amused him when he had thought about it later on--it remineded him, he said, of his younger days as a U.N. reporter, when he routinely called the Secretary-General at midnight or later. Invariably the Secretary-General's first words were, "Rosenthal, is that you again?"