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Journalist for world freedom.

Democracy and freedom would be enormously boosted the world over if the Western media devoted more attention to covering human rights violations, according to A.M. Rosenthal, former managing editor and executive editor of the New York Times.

"I don't think enough newspapers give adequate attention to it; there's a big gap," says the 81-year-old Pulitzer Prize--winning journalist, now a columnist who devotes much of his writing to human rights and freedom issues. "When I say human rights, I mean the broadest thing, from false arrest to torture and everything in between. I'd like to see every good paper [and other media] have a person on that beat. And it should be an honored beat."

For this to happen, Rosenthal says in an interview, newsroom managers need to make a conscious (and difficult) decision to reverse the well-established trend among the U.S. media toward less foreign news coverage. In addition, they must cover countries "straight," that is, give human rights the full place it deserves in the pantheon of cherished news subjects such as economics, politics, trade, and the arts. For example, most of the media's reporting on China focuses on America's major political, trade, and national security interests but should deal far more than it does with Beijing's ugly repression of free speech and religion, extensive laogai or forced-labor prison system, and ethnic repression of Tibetans.


One reason Rosenthal became consumed by freedom issues is his unwaning exhilaration over his Americanness. He was born in Canada of parents who migrated from Russia to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and moved to New York City when he was six. His mother called the United States the "golden land." He still keeps his naturalization papers on his wall. "Those are probably my most important personal possession," he declares. "To this day, I'm still lifted by the thought of having become an American citizen. It was a great experience for me."

Being an American became, in fact, the greatest influence in his life, because his consciousness was constantly reinvigorated by realizations that his Americanness made him free in every way--to go anywhere, get any job, speak his mind, and so on. "A kid who got 12 bucks a week," he says, "became the editor of the New York Times. Now how did that happen? It didn't happen simply by my talent. It happened by my living in a free country. And that is God's truth."

He got into journalism when he was 18; before then he had no idea what he wanted to do in life. In fact, he felt that no one would ever want to hire him for anything because he had osteomyelitis, a bone inflamation, of the left hip, which necessitated three operations as a boy and several more throughout his life to deal with the lingering effects of the disease. When he was a child, he was often in excruciating pain and had to spend much of his time on crutches.

Moreover, he was emotionally battered by multiple family tragedies. His father, who became a house painter after moving to New York City, fell off a scaffold and died when the boy was 13. And four of his five older sisters (he was the only boy) passed away when they were only in their twenties--one from complications in childbirth, two from cancer, and one from pneumonia. (The latter death was a particularly hard blow. His eldest sister was walking home from work through a park in the Bronx just before Christmas when she was accosted by a man who exposed himself. She escaped from him in mortal fright and ran all the way home. Due to stress and exhaustion, she caught cold that night, was struck by pneumonia the next morning, and died a few days later. "I think of it as murder," Rosenthal says. "He put her to death.")

Unbeknownst to the youth, however, the soil was being cultivated within him for the seed of journalism to be planted and to grow. For one thing, his sisters introduced him to the world of books. As his fascination for them grew, his vocabulary expanded apace and his ability to write blossomed. For another thing, his mother pushed him relentlessly to work hard and excel at school. Finally, his father stamped young Abe with his own personality--a heady mix of intellectuality and adventurousness, both important traits of a newsman. The elder Rosenthal, who was a voracious reader, crisscrossed Canada trapping and trading for the Hudson's Bay Company. At one point, he started a farm with some friends, but it failed.


"He loved the great outdoors," Rosenthal recalls. "He always used to say to me when I was a little boy in Canada, 'Sonny [as his father called him], when you grow up, become a queen's forester. It's so good to be outdoors! You get plenty of fresh air and a lot of time to read the queen's books.' He was so happy at that."

Due to his hard work and natural keenness, the boy's grades were so high that he was granted admission to City College, New York City's premier public institution of higher education. The tuition was free, but young Abe and his family, in the absence of a father to provide a steady income, were still quite poor. His sisters would help support him with little financial gifts, and the youth would work at temporary jobs--for instance, on Saturdays at Bergdorf Goodman, the department store. He would often go to the college cafeteria and get by on "mustard sandwiches"--two slices of bread for a nickel with free mustard from bottles on the table.

The watershed in his life came when a friend invited him into the basement cubicle office of the college newspaper, a weekly four-pager called the Campus. He was immediately captivated by the smell of ink and the sight of students clacking away at old manual typewriters. "I walked in there and looked around," he remembers, "and I knew this was for me." His first duty was as a copyboy, which involved just running errands and fetching coffee. Soon, he began to write. "I developed a passion for writing," he says.

About a year later, he became the editor of the paper and then got a job at the New York Times covering events at the college and Board of Higher Education as a stringer, or part-time writer. Here, he got "real money"-- about $12 a week. After a while, he also wrote articles on the sermons delivered at prominent churches, at $3 a Sunday, and so had a respectable $15 or so at the end of the week. "It was wonderful!" he exclaims. "I just developed a passion for journalism."

In 1943, during his senior year at City College, he was offered a full-time job at the Times and left school to take it. (He got his degree six years later after gradually making up the remaining credits.) He worked for two years on the city desk. Then, in 1945, a temporary spot opened up covering the brand new United Nations. He was posted to cover the world body for just two weeks--but the assignment became a nine-year stint. During that time, Rosenthal developed an appetite for foreign affairs and overseas places.

The paper sent him to cover India in 1954, a beat that also embraced Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Afghanistan, and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Additionally, he would cover events in New Guinea and Vietnam from time to time. In 1958, the Times dispatched him to Poland, but after two years he was expelled by the communist authorities for probing too deeply into the country's political and social affairs. "They didn't like what I wrote," he says, "which is understandable." Rosenthal was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting from Poland in 1960 and has won several Overseas Press Club Awards and Front Page prizes. In 2002, President George W. Bush bestowed on him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


After his Poland stint, he was officially assigned to cover Switzerland, but in practice he reported on events in Africa, especially the Congo war. A year passed, and then the paper sent him to be its correspondent in Japan. He was absolutely thrilled to be a foreign correspondent during these nine years, because, he says, it afforded him an opportunity to profoundly explore a country's every detail and have adventure to boot.

In 1963, he was called back to the home office to fill the post of metropolitan editor. From then on, it was a stream of ever-higher editorial promotions: assistant managing editor in 1967, associate managing editor in 1968, managing editor in 1969, and executive editor in 1977. Under one or another title, he had responsibility for the daily news operations of the Times for about 16 years and daily and Sunday operations for about 10.

He once told an interviewer with the Earth Times, "The last thing I wanted to be in the newspaper business was the man who pushed the coffee cart. The second-to-last thing was an editor," because of the lack of independence and creativity compared with the life of a foreign correspondent. He officially retired on January 1, 1988, but has continued in journalism by writing a regular syndicated column that appears in the New York Daily News, the Washington Times, and other U.S. and foreign newspapers.

Rosenthal, who divorced and remarried and has three sons and grandchildren, says his greatest accomplishment is "being a good newspaperman." He comments that there is not enough emphasis today among journalists on being "good" in this way. "There is too much editorializing," he contends. "This is very serious. All of journalism is slipping and should pull up its socks. When I was the editor of the Times, we kept a strict eye on making sure that the news stories were straight"--that is, strictly objective and unslanted. He stresses the absolute importance of having editors, reporters, and publisher all stay on the same page about keeping editorial views out of the news section.

On the subject of religion, Rosenthal says it is increasingly important in his life. Although he attends synagogue only occasionally, he studies a "big, wonderful Bible" he got at a secondhand bookstore and reads books about religion.

In addition, he received a bar mitzvah when he was 65. (Due to his father's untimely death, he was never bar mitzvahed as a teenager.)

The former Times editor explains that the path to his bar mitzvah began "at a friend's house one night. I was having an argument with my father who had been dead many years. I was arguing with him, saying, 'Why didn't you give me some Jewish training?' He was in Heaven and I was down here. We had the argument every year, always at Passover; that's what touched it off.

"So one Passover he said from Heaven, 'Sonny, if you want an education in Hebrew, why don't you go get it?' I never got the education in Hebrew, but I got a bar mitzvah. I felt I wasn't a part of [the Jewish faith] unless I did something like that."n

Bio:Robert R. Selle is an editor in the Current Issues section of The World & I.
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Title Annotation:Biography; A.M. Rosenthal, former managing editor and executive editor of the New York Times
Author:Selle, Robert R.
Publication:World and I
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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