Read Gray Lady Down Online

Authors: William McGowan

Gray Lady Down

Table of Contents
 
 
 
for Louise Salerno
Were the news standards of the
Times
more broadly emulated, the nation would be far better informed and more honorably served.
—“is it True What They Say About the
New York Times
?”
National Review,
1972
 
 
 
if you think The Times plays it down the middle on [divisive social issues], you’ve been reading the paper with your eyes closed.
—Daniel Okrent,
Times
Public Editor, “is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?” 2004
Prologue
I
am not one of those people “who love to hate the
Times,
” as the paper’s executive editor Bill Keller has phrased it. I’ve read the
New York Times
since I was a kid, and I am proud to have been published prominently in it very early in my career. (The first things I ever published appeared in the
Times Magazine
and on the op-ed page.) I still consider the
Times
an important national resource, albeit an endangered one, and I confess to being one of those New Yorkers who refer to it simply as “the paper.” Pre-Internet, I would find myself wandering to the corner newsstand late at night and waiting like a junkie for a fix in the form of the next day’s edition. If I was out of town and couldn’t find it, I would jones.
But sadly, those days, that young man and that
New York Times
are long gone.
My aim is not to embarrass the
Times
or to feed a case for “going
Times
less,” as some subscription cancellers and former readers have called it. Some may think the
Times
to be irrelevant in this age of media hyperchoice. I think it’s actually more necessary than ever. But if “These Times Demand The Times,” as the paper’s advertising slogan goes, they also demand a better
Times
than the one we are getting, especially at this fraught point in our political, social and cultural history.
 
William McGowan
The Writers Room
New York City
September 2010
one
Abe Rosenthal and the Golden Age
B
ack in the seventies, during an alarming downturn in stock price, advertising sales, revenue and circulation at the
New York Times,
the famed executive editor A. M. (Abe) Rosenthal confessed to having a recurrent nightmare: It was an ordinary Wednesday morning and “there was no
New York Times.
” Rosenthal outlived his nightmare. Along with the publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, and a group of skillful news executives, he put the paper back into the black. In the process, this team revolutionized the way the paper reported the news and set an example that transformed newspaper journalism in the rest of the country.
Rosenthal retired from the executive editor position in 1986 and then wrote a
twice-weekly column on the op-ed page until 1999. Along with James Reston and a handful of others, he is identified with the
New York Times’
golden age, a time when the paper spoke to—and for—the nation. In May 2006, Rosenthal died after a massive stroke at the age of eighty-four. He had worked fifty-three years for the
Times,
after coming aboard as a copyboy in 1946 in his early twenties.
Rosenthal’s death prompted a week’s worth of published tributes and flattering obituaries, describing how, as his
Times
obituary put it, “he climbed on rungs of talent, drive and ambition to the highest echelons of the
Times
and American journalism.” The salutes culminated in the passionate eulogies delivered at his funeral, held at Central Synagogue in Manhattan. An estimated eight hundred people attended the service, representing a Who’s Who of New York’s business, media, political and cultural elite, including figures as diverse as Mike Wallace, Walter Cronkite, Beverly Sills, Charlie Rose, Midge Decter and Rudy Giuliani. The honorary pallbearers were led by the former mayor Ed Koch and William F. Buckley Jr. They were followed by a half-dozen men who had worked with Rosenthal at the
Times,
including his former boss, Arthur O. Sulzberger. That week, Buckley had hailed Rosenthal as the commanding figure in the evolution of serious daily journalism, which he had influenced as decisively, in Buckley’s opinion, as William Randolph Hearst had the tabloids, and Henry Luce the weekly newsmagazines. Sulzberger, by then the former publisher, had told the
New York Sun
that “It was the golden age of journalism when Abe was at the Times.”
Some of the tributes focused on Rosenthal’s impoverished and tragic background. He was the son of a Byelorussian immigrant who became a Canadian fur trapper before coming to America to work as a housepainter. Abe’s father died after falling off a ladder, four of his five sisters passed away before he was an adult, and Abe himself was afflicted with osteomyelitis, a rare bone disorder. The medical care he received was substandard. At one point an operation was performed on the wrong part of his leg, and as he was lying in a full body cast he was told that he would never walk again. It was only after being admitted to the Mayo Clinic as a
charity case that he recovered, but he still experienced lifelong pain.
Other tributes focused on his remarkable career trajectory. Beginning as the
Times
stringer at New York’s City College, he was formally hired as a copyboy without even graduating. He was a reporter for nineteen years, covering the fledgling United Nations before becoming a foreign correspondent in 1955, assigned to cover India, Japan and Poland. He was expelled from Poland for reporting that was “too probing” for the Communist government there, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1960 for international reporting. In 1963 he returned to New York to assume a new title, “metropolitan editor.” From there he climbed up the editorial hierarchy, becoming assistant managing editor, managing editor and finally executive editor of the entire paper in 1977.
Although a fierce protector of
Times
tradition, Rosenthal shook up the Metro staff, encouraging better, brighter writing from talented reporters like Gay Talese and rotating beat assignments that had previously been regarded as set in stone. He emphasized investigative reporting and broke precedent by assigning trend stories on controversial subjects like interracial marriage and homosexuality. Believing he had suffered some measure of career bias as a result of anti-Semitism, he upended the informal caste system at the
Times,
which had traditionally favored Ivy League WASPs over New York-bred Italians, Irish and Jews.
As executive editor, Rosenthal steered the
Times
through the coverage of the Vietnam War, the rise of the counterculture, the Watergate scandal and various Mideast crises. He played a central role in the decision to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971, bucking up Sulzberger and other executives who feared that printing the government’s own classified history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam would appear to the public as treasonous, expose the paper’s executives to federal prosecution, and lead to financial ruin. Rosenthal himself was not a dove; at his funeral, his son recalled him putting on a cowboy hat at home and singing “I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee.” But as a
Times
editorial after his death noted, he believed that “when something important is going on, silence is a lie.”
Many of the tributes dwelled on Rosenthal’s role in rescuing the paper from financial peril and journalistic irrelevance in an age when television was killing off newspapers right and left, which was just as important as the big-ticket news stories he shepherded. Facing declines in ad revenue and circulation, as well as charges that the paper’s writing was dull, Rosenthal spearheaded efforts to broaden the paper’s appeal and liven up its pages. The result was the “Sectional Revolution,” expanding the daily paper from two sections to four, which encouraged a rebound in circulation along with ad sales and revenues.
At the same time, Rosenthal’s legendary bad temper did not go unmentioned. The newsroom atmosphere was suffused with his “tempestuous personality,” said the
Times
obituary writer Robert McFadden, “leading to 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.” Some recalled Rosenthal as a vengeful man who kept a “shit-list in his head,” as one writer put it, and as “a shouter and a curser” who would make or break careers on a whim.
The one theme that resounded through almost all the obituaries and tributes was Rosenthal’s “tiger-ish” defense of high standards in reporting and editing, his call for “fairness, objectivity and good taste in news columns free of editorial comment, causes and political agendas, innuendo and unattributed, pejorative quotations,” as McFadden phrased it. This sense of journalistic integrity perfectly embodied the
Times’
founding motto of delivering the news “impartially, without fear or favor, without concern for party interest or sect.”
The reason why Rosenthal was obsessed with keeping editors and reporters from putting their “thumbs on the scale,” wrote the
Times
columnist Thomas Friedman, was because he believed a “straight”
New York Times
was “essential to helping keep democracy healthy and our government honest.” Rosenthal kept the
Times
“straight” by battling what he saw as the ingrained left-liberal tendencies of the newsroom, particularly the Washington bureau. He scolded reporters and editors he thought were romanticizing
the sixties counterculture, which he viewed as a destructive force. While encouraging reporters to write with more flair, Rosenthal eschewed the subjectivity of the New Journalism, seeing this genre as substituting reportorial ego for a commitment to fact. He was vigilant about conflicts of interest, once firing a reporter who was found to have been sleeping with a Pennsylvania politician she covered while working for the
Philadelphia Inquirer.
“I don’t care if my reporters are fucking elephants,” Rosenthal was said to have declared, “as long as they aren’t covering the circus.”
A tribute of sorts to the ideological neutrality of
Times
news reporting under Rosenthal had come from a rather unusual source: William F. Buckley’s
National Review,
the very bible of American conservatism. In 1972, as Spiro Agnew railed against the “elitist Eastern establishment press,” and Richard Nixon was livid over the
Times’
publication of the Pentagon Papers and its looming endorsement of George McGovern, the
National Review
produced an article examining the charges of left-leaning bias. Conservatives had long dismissed the
Times
as “a hopeless hotbed of liberalism, biased beyond redemption and therefore not to be taken seriously,” the magazine observed, asking, “But to what extent was this impression soundly based?” A subheadline telegraphed its findings: “Things on 43rd Street aren’t as bad as they seem.” The
National Review
audit examined five developing stories, which it said had a “distinct left-right line,” and concluded: “The
Times
news administration was so evenhanded that it must have been deeply dismaying to the liberal opposition.” It went on to state that conservatives and other Americans would be far more confident in other media—specifically newsmagazines and television networks—if those media “measured up to the same standard” of fairness. “Were the news standards of the
Times
more broadly emulated,”
National Review
said, “the nation would be far better informed and more honorably served.”

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