Thursday, May 11, 2006
If I were A.M. Rosenthal's family, I'm not sure how I'd feel about the biographical article the New York Times is running on its front page this morning. It is long and interesting, but the part before the jump to Section C contains only five paragraphs. Two of them are pretty tough on his legacy as a person, even if reverential about his contributions to journalism:
Brilliant, passionate, abrasive, a man of dark moods and mercurial temperament, he could coolly evaluate world developments one minute and humble a subordinate for an error in the next...
Then, returning to New York in 1963, he became an editor. Over the next 23 years, he served successively as metropolitan editor, assistant managing editor, managing editor and executive editor, enlarging his realms of authority by driving his staffs relentlessly, pursuing the news aggressively and outmaneuvering rivals for the executive suite.
Talk about yer damnation with faint, er, damnation.
If you confine yourself to the portion of the story on the front page, you can't help but wonder whether Rosenthal really was a jerk, or whether the Times is at least subconsciously distancing itself from him. If you jump to the back, you see that Rosenthal's tenure as executive editor of the Times drove massive and controversial changes in the paper, most of which are today seen as among its best aspects. At a tradition-bound place like the Grey Lady, though, he must have wrenched many noses out of joint to get so much done.
There's another thing. The story makes clear that the Times eventually fired him:
He then began the last phase of his Times career, nearly 13 years as the author of a twice-weekly column, "On My Mind," for the Op-Ed page. His first column, on Jan. 6, 1987, and his last, on Nov. 5, 1999, carried the same headline, which he wrote: "Please Read This Column."
As that injunction implied, the columns reflected his passions and what he saw as a personal relationship with readers. He addressed a range of foreign and domestic topics with a generally conservative point of view. But there were recurring themes —his support for Israel and its security, his outrage over human rights violations in China and elsewhere, his commitment to political and religious freedoms around the world, and his disgust at failures in America's war on drugs.
It was an assignment he relished, and he surrendered it reluctantly. He said in an interview with The Washington Post that Arthur Sulzberger Jr., by then the publisher of The Times, had told him "it was time."
"What that means, I don't know," he said, adding, "I didn't expect it at all."
He left, but he did not retire. "I've seen happier days," he said, cleaning out his office, adding, "I want to remain a columnist." In February 2000, he began an untitled weekly column for The Daily News that reflected his increasingly conservative convictions and continued until 2004.
Now, Rosenthal's column was not exactly crackling during his last years at the Times, but that is also true of many of the regular op-ed columnists. The Times is known for keeping these people around for years after they have written every interesting word they are going to write. My guess -- and if there are industry insiders who can correct me, please do -- is that it was galling for the then much more liberal editorial staff of the Times to tolerate the lurking op-ed presence of an "increasingly conservative" former executive editor. Howell Raines and friends could deal with the token conservativism of William Safire, out of sight and out of mind in Washington, but could not abide rising rightiness from A.M. Rosenthal.
So they replaced him with Paul Krugman.
UPDATE: Slate's Jack Shafer published an essay on Rosenthal this evening -- "Ugly Genius" -- that suggests quite strongly that Rosenthal was, in fact, a jerk, but that his politics rankled too.
Undoubtedly there is a certain segment who will gladly shell out to read what they want to see in print. And the NYTimes will gladly cater to them. These people may even think they are getting good value, for you get what you pay for, no? But that idea presupposes paying for something insures its value, which is really a stupid way of thinking. It discounts the validity of what is more certainly true: There's a sucker born every minute.