Rosenthal Reported 'Witch Hunts'

Seventeen year-old Jacocb “Jack” Rosenthal ’56 waited outside in the cold with a photographer, hoping for a glimpse of the Democratic presidential candidate who was rumored to be visiting his son, a student at Harvard Law School.

“Sure enough, the door opened and out came [presidential candidate] Adlai Stevenson,” Rosenthal says, still sounding faintly surprised. “He looked at me funny and said ‘Why are you standing out in the cold so long? Why don’t you come in and get some hot chocolate?’”

One of Rosenthal’s first assignments as a Crimson reporter was also one of his most memorable. After an excited two-minute interview, Rosenthal says he knew then that he wanted to be a reporter.

“If I had any doubts about journalism, boy that would have assuaged them,” he says.

But not many doubts had presented themselves. Long before he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1982, Rosenthal made and distributed a newspaper as a kid for his neighbors on an old typewriter. He also voraciously read his hometown paper, The Oregonian, where he later worked and thrived as a reporter.

“My parents were immigrants who had a hard time making a living,” he says. “The local newspaper, The Oregonian, was a primary Americanizing influence in my life”

And when it came to choosing where to go to college, Rosenthal only applied where he knew a good school paper awaited him.

“For me personally, getting into Harvard was kind of a pre-condition to doing what it was that I really wanted to do, which was to be on The Crimson,” he says.

Rosenthal rose quickly in the ranks of The Crimson to become the Associate Managing Editor, while also scoring a job on the side as the New York Herald’s sports correspondent.

Rosenthal was on scholarship at a time when one of his own articles reported that a $40,000 loan program constituted a 300 percent increase in financial aid for the Class of 1958.

To make ends meet, Rosenthal worked two hours every night at the Adams House Dining Hall in addition to his work on the Crimson and as a stringer for the Herald.

“The wonderful thing about the Herald Tribune was that in addition to stringer fees they paid $30 a month,” he says. “It was a fortune to me.”

A Crimson colleague and friend, Charles M. Giker ’56, remembers Rosenthal’s dedication to the paper.

“He was a very thoughtful person and he has been a very thoughtful person in life,” says Giker, the former Business Manager. “He was probably as active as anyone could be.”

Rosenthal, a history concentrator, says he mostly concentrated in The Crimson.

“It wasn’t until really the middle of my junior year that I finally grew up to know what I was missing, and began taking classes seriously, and began doing well,” Rosenthal says.

Rosenthal was too busy uncovering political threats to academia to take advantage of his classes: he was the editor of a special section dedicated to exposing intellectual persecution during McCarthyism.

“We liked to think then that by assembling these stories we were able to contribute to the ultimate sense of outrage that ended the witch hunts,” Rosenthal says. “I know that many of us were drawn to journalism for the thrill of public service in taking on demagogues in a time when a shadow had come over the country.”

This dedication to public service is evident in Rosenthal’s career. After a stint at The Oregonian as a news and sports reporter, he became a speechwriter and special assistant to Robert F. Kennedy in 1961, and then later a press officer for the State Department. He returned to Harvard in 1967 as a Kennedy Fellow at the Institute of Politics.

“If you’d once left journalism and gone to the other side it was really hard to regain your journalistic virginity,” Rosenthal says. “So my strategy for doing that was to get the fellowship at Harvard and to study something that didn’t have anything to do with the government.”

He studied urban affairs, focusing on data that showed a larger proportion of the population was living and working in the suburbs.

In 1969, he became the urban affairs correspondent at The New York Times, where he won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1982, among other distinctions.

While at The Times’ Washington Bureau, Rosenthal bet a colleague that he could get a story on the front page every day for a week. He called the first few stories “no sweat,” but as the week wore on, Rosenthal found himself in a bind.

“Friday facing the Saturday paper I was absolutely wiped out when just at lunchtime I got a call from someone I had known slightly who was on the Board of Overseers and he says, ‘We’ve just chosen Derek Bok to be the president, but I can’t tell you you’ve got to find it out for yourself,’” Rosenthal recalls. “I sure don’t want to do that again.”

In 1993, he became editor of The New York Times Magazine where he presided over many initiatives, including the international competition to create The Times Capsule, a sculpture displayed at the American Museum of Natural History.

As the president of The New York Times Company Foundation, a philanthropic organization, Rosenthal has recently turned his eye to what he calls “Topic A” for New York City—immigration. Rosenthal, who was born in Tel Aviv, says that being an immigrant was the “overriding factor” of his own life. He has spearheaded a program focused on adult English education in New York City, which will be up and running this fall.

“It’s not journalism but it sure is fun,” Rosenthal says.

—Staff writer Liz C. Goodwin can be reached at