Honest (about) Abe

Abe Rosenthal, the editor who did the most to make the modern New York Times what it is today, has died at the age of 84. The obituary in the Times is lengthy and remarkably candid — that is to say, it takes the measure of the man (who after all helped shape the newspaper doing the measuring) in full.

Consider the following two paragraphs:

Perhaps more than those of any editor in modern times, Mr. Rosenthal’s life and career were chronicled closely, and his personal traits and private and professional conduct were dissected and analyzed with fascination in gossip and press columns, in magazines and books, and in the newsrooms and bars where those who had worked for or against him told their tales of admiration and woe.

The extraordinary interest was rooted only partly in the methods, achievements and faults of a powerful figure in journalism; it came, too, from the man himself: a table-pounding, globe-trotting adventurer who shattered the stereotype of the genteel Times editor with his gut fighter’s instincts and his legendary bouts of anger.

Or consider the following summary of his sometimes dysfunctional approach to management:

Throughout Mr. Rosenthal’s years as editor, press critics chronicled his rising fortune and the growing success of The Times. But they also described Mr. Rosenthal personally and as an administrator in generally unflattering terms and characterized his staff as rife with grumbling and low morale.

Wielding enormous power to hire, reward and transfer subordinates, he personally approved all news staff promotions, raises and major assignments, shaping the pyramid of personnel under him and approving all major appointments to local news beats and to national and foreign bureaus. In the process, he made and broke the careers and dreams of scores of reporters and editors. Among those whose careers flourished under Mr. Rosenthal were two future executive editors of The Times, Joseph Lelyveld and Bill Keller, who now holds the title, and Anna Quindlen, the author and former Times columnist. In a newsroom atmosphere suffused with Mr. Rosenthal’s tempestuous personality, there were stormy outbursts in which subordinates were berated for errors, reassigned for failing to meet the editor’s expectations or sidetracked to lesser jobs for what he regarded as disloyalty to The Times. Others, meanwhile, won promotions, raises and access to his inner circle.

Say what we will about the Jayson Blair scandal and its effect on the newspaper, but in this story about Rosenthal’s legacy the Times does not only meet the reader’s expectations; it exceeds them.

PS. Check out this video too, from 1982.

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