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Former NY Times editor Rosenthal dies at 84

Guided paper when it published Pentagon Papers
/ Source: The Associated Press

A.M. Rosenthal, a demanding editor who lifted The New York Times from economic doldrums in the 1970s and molded it into a journalistic juggernaut known for distinguished reporting of national and world affairs, died Wednesday at age 84.

He died of complications from a stroke he suffered two weeks ago, the Times said.

Rosenthal, known as Abe, spent virtually all of his working life at the Times, beginning as a lowly campus stringer in 1943. He rose to police reporter, foreign correspondent, managing editor and finally to the exalted office of executive editor, a post he held for nine years beginning in 1977.

“Abe was a giant among journalists,” retired Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger said in a statement. “He was a great editor with extraordinary loyalty to his troops.”

On Rosenthal’s watch, the Times published the “Pentagon Papers,” a history of America’s secret involvement in Vietnam, which won the paper one of its many Pulitzer Prizes in 1972. But the paper started slowly on Watergate and never caught up with the rival Washington Post on the seminal story that brought down a president.

In 1986, facing mandatory retirement, Rosenthal stepped down as editor to assume a new role as a twice-weekly columnist. Thirteen years later, he was abruptly dismissed, with no explanation, he said, other than a comment by Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. that “it’s time.”

Rosenthal made clear that the parting was not his idea, telling one questioner that to say he had retired “would imply volition.” When asked by a reporter for the rival Washington Post whether he was fired, he replied, “Sweetheart, you can use any word you want.”

Globe-trotting reporterThe Canadian-born Rosenthal was a naturalized U.S. citizen and fervent disciple of American democracy, with an abiding interest in international affairs nurtured by a decade of working abroad.

He covered the United Nations for eight years from its inception in 1946 and later reported from India, Switzerland, Poland and Japan. His tough coverage of Warsaw’s communist regime in the late 1950s earned him expulsion from the country — and journalism awards: the 1960 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting and the first of two Polk awards.

In 1969, taking the helm of a paper then in financial distress, Rosenthal, as managing editor and later as executive editor, effected sweeping changes to expand advertising and readership. He beefed up the Times’ metropolitan coverage, added a daily business section and specialty sections on sports, weekend features and science and pumped new life into its prose.

In these endeavors, Rosenthal had the backing of the elder Sulzberger, known as Punch, whom he called “probably the best publisher in modern American history.”

“We wanted to expand the paper, make it more interesting to more people but also keep its character,” Rosenthal said in one interview after leaving the Times.

In an editorial marking his departure, the Times said Rosenthal’s “devotion to quality journalism made him one of the principal architects of the modern New York Times.”

Though he was acknowledged as a brilliant and incisive editor who, in the words of one Times veteran, “could instantly grasp the essence of any story and how it should be played in the paper,” Rosenthal’s temperament was less admired. To some detractors he was an overbearing tyrant, whose autocratic behavior could, and sometimes did, derail a promising career.

R.W. “Johnny” Apple, a top Times reporter for four decades, was quoted in a 1999 magazine article as saying Rosenthal “was not the nicest man to work for, but — and there’s a major but — he may have saved The New York Times.”

The Times credited Rosenthal with being “instrumental in mustering the arguments” in favor of publishing the explosive “Pentagon Papers,” which revealed how four successive U.S. administrations had become enmeshed in Indochina.

Rosenthal’s famous newsroom maxim, “keep the story straight,” was prompted in part by the conservative-minded editor’s perception of a leftist tilt in the paper’s coverage, but some Times colleagues thought he overcompensated by giving too little attention to such stories as strife-torn Central America and AIDS.

As editor, Rosenthal barred the use of “Ms.” or the word “gay” in reference to homosexuals — a far cry from the Times’ later emphasis on diversity. He also began the paper’s practice, now imitated by many others, of running corrections as a prominent daily fixture.

Rosenthal stepped down as executive editor in 1986 at age 64, a year short of the paper’s mandatory retirement age, and began a twice-weekly op-ed column called “On My Mind.”

His final column, on Nov. 5, 1999, was headlined “Read This Column,” the same as used for his first entry 13 years earlier. Within days after his dismissal, Rosenthal found a new forum for the column at the Daily News, a crosstown tabloid.

In 2002, Rosenthal was one of 12 leaders in arts, sports, entertainment, politics and journalism to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He called it the biggest surprise of his life. President Bush said his outspoken defense of persecuted Christians in Asia, Africa and the Middle East “truly made him his brother’s keeper.”

Rosenthal’s slot as a Times columnist was taken over by Clyde Haberman, who had the distinction of having also served as campus stringer at City College — and been fired from that role by Rosenthal.

While a Times spokeswoman denied it, some Times-watchers speculated that Rosenthal’s unexpected departure was related to the public airing of a long-running feud between him and Max Frankel, his successor as executive editor.

In an autobiography published months earlier, Frankel had harshly criticized Rosenthal’s management style and implied he had been a relatively minor, yet frightened, figure in the “Pentagon Papers” debate, not an “instrumental” advocate of publication.

Rosenthal’s scathing response was quoted in a Vanity Fair magazine article in December 1999. Among other things, he blamed Frankel for missing the Watergate story while heading the Times’ Washington, D.C., bureau and called him “a liar” and “not someone who seemed worthy of a lot of emotion.”

Rosenthal was 4 when his parents, Harry and Sarah, moved the family from Canada to the United States. He grew up in the Bronx and began his newspaper career in 1943 as a $12-a-week campus stringer while attending City College of New York.

Graduating with a bachelor of science degree, he joined the Times as a full-time staffer in 1944 and spent two years as a police beat and general assignment reporter before a plum assignment in 1946 to cover the then-new United Nations.

Eight years there led to a series of foreign assignments: India, 1954-58; Warsaw, 1958-60; Geneva, Switzerland, 1959-61, and Japan, 1961-63.

Returning to New York, Rosenthal was named Times metropolitan editor, beginning a 14-year climb to the pinnacle of newsroom power — assistant managing editor, 1966; associate managing editor, 1968; managing editor, 1969; and executive editor, 1977.