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Revered 'New York Times' Editor Rosenthal Dies at 84


Abe Rosenthal, a giant in the news business, has died.

Rosenthal guided The New York Times to greater prominence and profits through hard-driving scoops and expanded coverage. Many former colleagues consider him the most influential editor ever to lead The Times, which he did for 17 years.

Rosenthal died this week at the age of 84, after suffering a serious stroke.

NPR's David Folkenflik reports.


When Abe Rosenthal left The Times for good in 1999, here's how he characterized his legacy in an interview with NPR's ON THE MEDIA:

(Soundbite of previous interview with A.M. Rosenthal)

Mr. A.M. “ABE” ROSENTHAL (Former Editor, The New York Times): Straight means straight. It tells the truth. It makes every effort to be as fair as possible. But, you have to teach people what is straight and what is innuendo, what is fair criticism and what is brutal criticism.

FOLKENFLIK: Abraham Michael Rosenthal was born in Canada to Russian Jewish immigrants, and moved to the Bronx a few years later. He had a tough childhood. His father and four sisters died when he was young, and he suffered a crippling bone marrow disease that required extensive charity treatment. Rosenthal found his calling in college as a stringer for The Times, and dropped out.

Abe's byline read, A.M. Rosenthal. The Sulzberger Family that owned the Times, sought to deflect attention from its own Jewish-ness, by hiding the Old Testament names of some reporters. Decades later, Rosenthal was the first Times editor to assign a Jewish reporter to cover the Middle East. Rosenthal reported on New York City and the United Nations before starting his own long stint as a foreign correspondent.

Mr. BERNARD KALB (Former Reporter, The New York Times; Media Critic and Author): Above and beyond the politics and the machinations that go on in all countries, he brought us the flavor, the texture, the face of people, the sound of people. He covered countries as though they were vast human-interest stories.

FOLKENFLIK: That's Bernard Kalb, a fellow Times reporter, who became a lifelong friend. To hear his colleagues describe it, Rosenthal could just about charm a scoop from a statue. He was expelled from Poland in 1959 for his incisive reporting on the repressive Communist regime there. The authorities explained, quote, "the Polish government cannot tolerate such probing reporting." The Pulitzer board agreed, giving him the top prize for foreign coverage.

He returned to New York a few years later to become an editor. Gay Talese was a Times reporter in the 1960s.

Mr. GAY TALESE (Author, Former New York Times Reporter): As he said to me so often, he wanted always to keep the paper honest, meaning uninvolved with partisan politics, and certainly skeptical of the regime in Washington.

FOLKENFLIK: In 1971, Rosenthal had been the paper's managing editor for just two years. Reporter Neil Sheehan had obtained a classified government study, showing American leaders repeatedly deceived the public about the country's entry into the Vietnam War. Rosenthal led the fight to publish what became known as the Pentagon Papers, despite the objections of The Times outside lawyers. The articles ran. The Nixon administration tried to block subsequent publication, but The Times prevailed at the Supreme Court. It was a signal moment.

As former Times reporter Alex Jones recalls, Rosenthal soon faced another challenge.

Mr. ALEX JONES (Reporter, The New York Times): People think of the New York Times as being like Harvard or the New York Public Library--something that is, you know, there, and will never go away. In fact, it's a business and it's fragile in its own way. In the 1970s it was really on the verge of going into the red.

FOLKENFLIK: Rosenthal and a key editor, Arthur Gelb, introduced brightly written sections about sports, business, culture, science and home life. The paper attracted new affluent readers and new profits.

In running The Times, Rosenthal ran roughshod over a lot of the people who worked for him. Syd Schanberg left the news division to write an opinion column, and ultimately left the paper entirely after one too many fights with Rosenthal. Other colleagues have similar tales. Rosenthal pleaded guilty--sort of--in a 1986 interview with NPR.

(Soundbite of previous interview with A.M Rosenthal)

Mr. ROSENTHAL: (Unintelligible) I am willful. I am arbitrary. I insist upon my having my own way, but I'm one hell of a good editor.

FOLKENFLIK: Rosenthal later became a conservative columnist for The Times, and still later, joined the New York Daily News. The column was often mocked in New York, but not his influence on The Times.

David Folkenflik, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

YDSTIE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.