Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: Fit to Print: A.M. Rosenthal and His Times

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, October 29, 2010

“Hypocrisy is one of the many failings of the American press.”

Abe Rosenthal ran the New York Times from the late sixties to the mid eighties. He made lots of enemies, took sides in New York’s elections, and treated people as if only he were real. But he also turned the Times into a more profitable entity that reported news instead of press releases and stories instead of raw data.

RecommendationWorth reading
AuthorJoseph C. Goulden
Length486 pages
Book Rating6

Fit to Print is as much about the times as it is about the Times and about A.M. Rosenthal. When Punch Sulzberger took over from his brother-in-law in 1963, the New York Times did not have a budget. Every one of the fourteen departments spent what they felt they needed to spend. In perhaps unrelated news, the paper was making a profit of about .5% and was unable to withstand any crises without losing money. The year before Punch took over, there was a 114-day printer’s strike, and the paper bled money. What kept the organization afloat were its industrial holdings, but that wasn’t a long-term strategy.

Sulzberger wanted to put the business onto a budget; he convinced news department head Turner Catledge to support it.

Catledge liked the idea in theory better than in application. “The first time Turner breached his budget,” Sulzberger said, “Turner simply announced that he was ‘withdrawing the news department from the budget.’ I had to convince him all over again that, “no, Turner, we can’t have a real budget unless it includes your department’”. (p. 129)

They were somewhat in the position that the automakers are today: the overriding problem was “the ability of the printing and other unions to wrest handsome contract increases each time they negotiated.”

The paper was in a vise: they didn’t have the financial strength to oppose union demands in the short term, but in the long term the paper was going to go bankrupt, and within Punch’s tenure.

Sulzberger shivered when the New York Herald Tribune closed in 1966, for he could see the same fate for his own paper. Even the gain of former Herald Tribune readers was expensive, for the Times lost seven cents on each new daily reader and seventy cents on each Sunday reader because advertising rates could not be raised fast enough to cover increased printing costs.

Emphasis mine: they were in the position of GM and Ford at least a few years ago, losing money on every product sold, without the financial reserves necessary to restructure.

The financial machinations of the Times are interesting. But it’s the change in journalistic philosophy that makes this book worth reading. There’s a tension in this biography between the author’s capitalistic leanings—in support of the business’s rights—and the Times’s left leanings; this tension mirrors the tensions present in Abe Rosenthal. The story of Rosenthal’s confrontation with the Village Voice and possibly the Students for a Democratic Society, over demands that Dr. Grayson Kirk at Columbia University resign (p. 157-160) mirrors Ayn Rand’s similar confrontation in The Fountainhead. Rosenthal liked to be where the cultural power was—just like the Times.

The Times has long tried to be the arbiter of what is news. I made a joke a few years ago about how the Times conveniently forgot to mention that their source for the dangers of the Hadron collider was also a time travel nut. Turns out, that kind of journalism is not a new problem for the Times. When they needed to divert attention from the Michael Stewart killing (made even more famous by Michelle Shocked, they used a Lyndon Larouche politician who was also a doctor (and Larouche’s personal physician), without mentioning the doctor’s unique logic. (p. 242)

We joke now about how the Times continually puts itself in the position of reporting “new” news to its readers, such as resignations of prominent politicians who are having problems that everyone else in the country has known about for weeks. That isn’t new for the Times either. In 1986 Donald Manes, “one of the city’s most prominent politicians”, committed suicide. Why? Because he was also involved in bribes and scams and about to get caught. Times readers didn’t know, however, at least not by reading the Times: the New York Times didn’t report on scandals that reflected poorly on the city. Manes had never had more than a “fleeting” mention in the city’s largest newspaper1 until the Times had to run his obituary.

Similarly, the Times had a long-standing policy in the eighties forbidding the mention of the word “gay” or reporting in any way that the homosexual subculture was a vibrant, growing community. When the AIDS epidemic hit, the Times was in the position of explaining why a community that didn’t exist was now dying. (p. 401-403)

This had the effect of delaying important news reports throughout the industry. A journalist for the Wall Street Journal who noticed an early AIDS report in the New England Journal of Medicine recognized that this was a front-page story. The Wall Street Journal editors dismissed it as unlikely, because

no one else was covering it; “How come there’s an epidemic going on in the Times’s backyard, and they’re not writing about it?”

The Times didn’t even mention AIDS as a cause of death when someone died from it.

Even when an 18,000-person fundraiser occurred in Madison Square Garden, attended by Mayor Koch, with entertainment by the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus and conductor Leonard Bernstein, news appeared “in the Chicago Tribune, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Washington Post—but not in The New York Times.”

They didn’t start using the word “gay”—as the gay community wished—until after Rosenthal retired as executive editor. The gay community then had the same experience as the tea party community today: having to rely “upon word-of-mouth and its own network of publications to spread information.”2

In another case, realizing that their South American correspondent was unreliable, they stood by his reporting publicly and chastised him privately. The result was the readers of the Times were collateral damage in the internal politics of the Times:

Easily overlooked in the arguments over inadequate or biased press coverage of a significant event is that the loser is not an editor or a newspaper whose reputation suffers transitory professional embarrassment. The loser is the reader.… Bonner burned the Times twice [the Gomez “atrocity” and Mozote]. Nevertheless, the Times left him in place for many more months, and did nothing to alert its readers that perhaps there was more to those articles than they had been told— that in fact Green Berets may not have witnessed the torture of Salvadoran teenagers, and that the pillage at Mozote may not have been a deliberate slaughter by Salvadoran soldiers.

In this instance Rosenthal displayed what is arguably his worst quality as an editor—his inability to admit that The New York Times could err on a story…

Rosenthal also cashed in on the power of his position, including keeping a public mistress. He left her about the same time he left his wife. There’s an interesting anecode on p. 453; when Goulden went to his initial interview with the mistress, years after the two had broken up, he assumed she wanted privacy. So he reserved an out-of-the-way booth at the café where no one would see them. When she arrived, she asked him to change the location: it was the same booth where she and Rosenthal used to eat.

Even when all of New York knew about her, he still hid her.

Perhaps the most interesting section is the very last chapter, “Sources and Acknowledgements”. It emphasizes the vast power that the executive editor on a major newspaper like the Times wields. Not only were his employees afraid to talk to a biographer, but people the newspaper reports on were also afraid.

A second group of persons was also nervous about interviews. These are people whose livelihoods depend upon remaining in the good graces of the Times—writers, theater and political figures, a gamut of interests, none willing to risk the disfavor of Rosenthal and his chum, Arthur Gelb. The recurring phrase I heard was, “Look, I write books, and these guys control The New York Times book Review. If I spend four years writing a book, and they happen to be pissed at me…” Several of them had risked their physical lives to win Pulitzer Prizes for Abe Rosenthal’s Times; yet they did not care to risk their professional lives by offending him.

Towards the end of the first third of the book, Rosenthal becomes managing editor, and the author writes:

…he had benefitted greatly from the protective embrace and patronage of Turner Catledge. But the competitive environment of the Times permits a patron to carry a protégé only so far; talent ultimately is the critical fact. Mentor Catledge nourished Rosenthal; he gave him the job that allowed a display of his abilities; he did the political hatchet work that cleaved away such potential competitors as Harrison Salisbury and Ted Bernstein. In the end, though, Rosenthal went to the top of the Times because he was the best newspaperman in New York, and because he wanted the job more than anyone else. (p. 169)

Fit to Print is an oddly biased biography. Joseph C. Goulden appears to dislike both his subject—A.M. Rosenthal—and the organizations that Rosenthal angered. This is a fascinating story about the byzantine politics of the major newspaper of the world at the time, and about the rise of a powerful, insecure, talented, selfish man who was, as Seymour Hirsh described him, the “smartest cocksucker who ever walked into a newsroom”. I doubt that today’s New York Times is anywhere near as interesting, because the power it once wielded has been diluted by the Internet and cable news (even though they don’t seem to realize it sometimes). And that’s an undeniably good thing. But it’s a hell of a time to read about.

  1. Would he have committed suicide if the story had broken normally—and slowly—instead of all at once?

  2. To the extent that they did get press, it was often hostile. See The Gay Militants

Fit to Print: A.M. Rosenthal and His Times

Joseph C. Goulden

Recommendation: Worth reading