Friday, May 12, 2006

Thomas Friedman's Take On A.M. Rosenthal's Bad Temper

There's an excellent column by New York Times Pulitzer Prize winning foreign columnist Thomas L. Friedman today on the career of A.M. Rosenthal, former Pulitzer Prize winner and executive editor of the NYT, who died this past week at 84. Friedman is apparently one of the few to see print this week who is not appalled at Rosenthal's autocratic management style and occasional bouts of bad temper.

To be frank, as someone who displayed more than flashes of bad temper myself, I, like Friedman, empathize with Rosenthal. I'm a great believer in what Henry Adams once said in a different context: "You can't use tact with a congressman. You have to take a stick and hit him in the snout." This is another way of saying, you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs.

So I particularly am pleased by these passages in Friedman's eulogy to Rosenthal.

"Yes, the man liked to break china -- sometimes over the head of an editor or a reporter -- but his journalistic daring and the passion he wore on his sleeve are still so compelling to me, especially today, when newsrooms resemble sterile insurance companies. As my friend Howell Raines used to say, when Abe was around, you knew journalism was going to happen. Some plates, even a few bones, might get broken -- but also a lot of news."

Amen! The press has not improved in this country as newsrooms have grown more bland. It is certainly preferable that Rosenthal said what he thought, even if he was often politically incorrect. His overall influence was positive, even inspirational.

Rosenthal, who I did not know personally, was not always fair. He hounded an excellent reporter, Ben A. Franklin, until he quit. And as a columnist after he retired as executive editor, he was more than infrequently very right wing. He had the temerity to support Israel against its enemies.

But under Rosenthal, the New York Times was an exciting newspaper, afraid of no one. Its decision to print the Pentagon Papers shows that.

Ir is no favor to either a newspaper's staff or readers for the editor to always be polite. A.M. Rosenthal wasn't, and thank goodness for that. As Friedman said today, he will be missed. Like Peter Ueberroth at the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing commitee, he was a hard taskmaster, but a good one.

Rosenthal is also remembered for his tremendous reporting from India and Poland. He found out so much about Poland, the then-Russian lining government threw him out.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nothing admirable about Rosenthal's bouts of bad temper and his harsh words to subordinates, some of whom became extremely depressed and one, a young reporter he demoted back in the 1980s, committed suicide, although Abe of course can't be solely to blame for that. But there is no logic in the notion that cracking skulls is a sign of inspired leadership. It only shows weakness and lack of true character. So sorry, I didn't shed a tear when Rosenthal passed on. Quite the reverse.

5/14/2006 8:18 PM  

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