It’s open season on Abe Rosenthal. For those who don’t follow masthead changes or the guest lists in the Hamptons, Abraham Michael (Abe) Rosenthal is the former executive editor of the New York Times--currently a columnist on its Op-Ed page and until 1986 the most powerful editorial figure on that powerful paper. Media writers and journalism reviews have long had Rosenthal in their gun sights and early this year, his erstwhile colleague Harrison Salisbury, the noted correspondent and former Times national editor, delivered a blistering indictment in “A Time of Change,” his memoir of two decades at the Times.
A protege of New York Times executive editor Turner Catledge (whose papers provided ample source material), A. M. Rosenthal began in the city room, moving rapidly upward in the decades following World War II--first as Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent, then as metropolitan editor, managing editor and finally executive editor. Backed by Arthur Ochs (Punch) Sulzberger, Rosenthal was widely credited with changing the face and editorial thrust of what had been the good gray Times, with livelier writing, investigative reporting, heavier analysis (or advocacy, depending on your perspective) and the special sections that spelled yuppification to some, but brought the glow of health to the Times’ ailing balance sheet.
Under Rosenthal’s stewardship, the Times published “The Pentagon Papers,” reported secret U.S. bombings in Cambodia, and aggressively covered other controversial U.S. policies in Central America. All of this won plaudits from the left and liberal center. Rosenthal has been praised as the man who saved the Times. He has also been denounced as a bully who ran his newsroom by whim, a brilliant journalist and journalistic manager whose personality problems often drove away the best and the brightest.
All in all, a fascinating subject, though one posing considerable hazards.
As the title suggests, “Fit to Print” sets out to examine not only Rosenthal, but the newspaper he had such a strong hand in shaping, from the ‘60s into the early ‘80s. And indeed, its more convincing sections, based on the Catledge papers, let the reader in on that process of change, citing in-house memos and letting us see the evolution of a great paper through the inner thoughts of its editors.
The problem is, the book has a hard time deciding what it wants to be--whether biography, newspaper history, media critique, media gossip, or all of the above. The tone is often shrill, less that of the historian than the polemicist--"Rosenthal is a shouter, a curser, a whiner . . . .” The author’s distaste is evident from his first description of the teen-age Abe: “Uncombable greasy hair drooping in disorganized swirls over thick-lensed glasses with heavy black horn rims. Pocked cheeks aflame with acne welts . . . spindly, scarred legs aching from osteomyelitis, an acute infection of the bone marrow.” A future editor, obviously, that only a mother could love. The result of all this is a narrative that never seems sure of its own center of gravity.
There’s Rosenthal’s personal story: the painful rise from a Bronx housing project, the consuming ambition; the neglect of a wife grown ill and obese, the dumping of the woman who reportedly rubbed creams into her lover’s acne-laden skin and put in 17 years waiting vainly to become the second Mrs. Rosenthal.
Analogous to the stories from private life are the newsroom “horror stories” (the term is the author’s)--the blacklist that could consign a reporter to limbo or at least the outer suburbs, the chance remark that could leave a career dead-ended if picked up by “a hair-trigger-tempered editor whose disposition was not improved by alcohol.”
Some stories are already a matter of public controversy--such as that of Raymond Bonner, whose El Salvador reports critiquing U.S. policy were first encouraged, then discouraged, and who finally left when he was pulled off the beat. Or the case of science reporter Richard Severo, cast into limbo after accepting a book contract with a house other than Times Books (though based, be it added, on a series bylined for the New York Times).
The list is seemingly endless, the case histories reeled off against the backdrop of a newspaper in flux, reinventing itself, financially and editorially, in a search for survival into the ‘80s. The corporation diversifies. Powerful journalists vie for position. Bureau chiefs are appointed and unseated. Power passes in a publishing dynasty. And as all the while Rosenthal expands his own power base--part empire builder, part rogue elephant in an unflattering portrait that finds its subject almost incapable of doing right. (On Page 10, Ray Bonner, the Times’ man in El Salvador is Rosenthal’s victim, “jerked” out of Central America by an editor moving the Times “many ideological steps to the right.” Two hundred and seventy-two pages later, that same Bonner is an “unschooled reporter” who based his exposes on “a most shaky foundation,” who “burned” his paper repeatedly and brought on “controversies that cast doubt on both his credibility and that of his newspaper.” And who gets slammed for keeping Bonner in place? You guessed it.)
There is also the question of sources. Much of the Times’ earlier story has been documented in Gay Talese’s “The Kingdom and the Power” and Harrison Salisbury’s “Without Fear or Favor.” Problems arise, however, when that documentation runs out, to be replaced by human memory. Moreover, of the 300-odd persons interviewed by Joseph Goulden, many are unnamed. Those speaking for the record, says the author, are identified in the text of the book; others ask for anonymity and get it--"a pity, and chiefly of Rosenthal’s making,” Goulden says.
Yet the listing of those who did go on the record inspires little confidence. Precision of reporting is too often sacrificed to lively narration. Even when the source is known, the attribution is frequently so fuzzy that we’re left wondering as to who serves as our eyes and ears. Even allowing for the dilemma of taking on the powerful, everyone still deserves their day in court, Abe Rosenthal included. Given, moreover, the rather sensational treatment of the subject, it’s hard to avoid questions of fairness--a question the author consistently flings at the staff and editors of the Times.
To cite one example: a dramatic confrontation between Rosenthal and apprehensive reporters--"the last quasi-organized attempt . . . to question the growing omnipotence of Abe Rosenthal"--is presented complete with the names of participants, dialogue, and personal observations (“at this point Abe got vituperative”). The source? “Several memories”; “someone”; “another reporter present”; and so on. Since 20 people allegedly attended, some of them now departed from the Times, the absence of a single named source is striking.
The author, moreover, uses those same anonymous sources to take swipes at other Times employees: One reporter is an “iron maiden who had equal concerns for her tough image and her hair curlers.” Another unnamed source drags in a colleague’s extramarital affairs, complete with details of a “stand-up embrace” indulged in at National Airport “in full view of the shuttle crowd”; presumably these anonymous sources needed protection from nothing more than a punch in the mouth.
Few, in fact, come off with any grace in these pages; indeed, never have so many journalistic VIPs taken so many lumps between the covers of a single book, with unflattering portraits of such luminaries as Max Frankel, Hedrick Smith, Seymour Hersh, Harrison Salisbury, and especially publisher Punch Sulzberger. Throw in chapters on sexism, the late hiring of minorities, a blackout on stories about gays, the betrayal of reporters’ confidentiality, and you have a cataloguing of sins--a kind of supermarket of abuse--that after a while begins to pall. Goulden, a former newspaperman and former Washington bureau chief for the Philadelphia Inquirer, does raise serious questions of journalistic ethics: What happens when the newspaper of record gets a story wrong? Is it not the editor’s place to set the record straight? How is the reader best served? Yet these questions get swamped in a tide of anger that serves neither the reader nor the author.
At the end, there is no balance sheet, no summing up beyond a brief, five-line paragraph, no final consideration that puts the foregoing 396 pages into context; just Abe and his column fading into the sunset.
Somewhere in the text, the author faults a New York Times correspondent for his prosecutor’s mentality. Goulden evidently set out to be a reporter--at least of the muckraking variety; and Rosenthal’s tenure at the Times--however brilliant journalistically--surely provided much muck worth raking. All too often, however, Goulden winds up as the prosecutor himself, a failing for which he faults so many of his subjects in this ambitious, fitfully provocative, but seriously flawed account.