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The Master of 43rd Street : FIT TO PRINT : A. M. Rosenthal and His Times by Joseph C. Goulden (Lyle Stuart: $21.95; 403 pp.)

November 13, 1988|Ann M. Sperber | Sperber is the author of "Murrow: His Life and Times" (Bantam Books), a 1987 Pulitzer finalist. and

It's open season on Abe Rosenthal. For those who don't follow masthead changes or the guest lists in the Hamptons, Abraham Michael (Abe) Rosenthal is the former executive editor of the New York Times--currently a columnist on its Op-Ed page and until 1986 the most powerful editorial figure on that powerful paper. Media writers and journalism reviews have long had Rosenthal in their gun sights and early this year, his erstwhile colleague Harrison Salisbury, the noted correspondent and former Times national editor, delivered a blistering indictment in "A Time of Change," his memoir of two decades at the Times.

A protege of New York Times executive editor Turner Catledge (whose papers provided ample source material), A. M. Rosenthal began in the city room, moving rapidly upward in the decades following World War II--first as Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent, then as metropolitan editor, managing editor and finally executive editor. Backed by Arthur Ochs (Punch) Sulzberger, Rosenthal was widely credited with changing the face and editorial thrust of what had been the good gray Times, with livelier writing, investigative reporting, heavier analysis (or advocacy, depending on your perspective) and the special sections that spelled yuppification to some, but brought the glow of health to the Times' ailing balance sheet.

Under Rosenthal's stewardship, the Times published "The Pentagon Papers," reported secret U.S. bombings in Cambodia, and aggressively covered other controversial U.S. policies in Central America. All of this won plaudits from the left and liberal center. Rosenthal has been praised as the man who saved the Times. He has also been denounced as a bully who ran his newsroom by whim, a brilliant journalist and journalistic manager whose personality problems often drove away the best and the brightest.

All in all, a fascinating subject, though one posing considerable hazards.

As the title suggests, "Fit to Print" sets out to examine not only Rosenthal, but the newspaper he had such a strong hand in shaping, from the '60s into the early '80s. And indeed, its more convincing sections, based on the Catledge papers, let the reader in on that process of change, citing in-house memos and letting us see the evolution of a great paper through the inner thoughts of its editors.

The problem is, the book has a hard time deciding what it wants to be--whether biography, newspaper history, media critique, media gossip, or all of the above. The tone is often shrill, less that of the historian than the polemicist--"Rosenthal is a shouter, a curser, a whiner . . . ." The author's distaste is evident from his first description of the teen-age Abe: "Uncombable greasy hair drooping in disorganized swirls over thick-lensed glasses with heavy black horn rims. Pocked cheeks aflame with acne welts . . . spindly, scarred legs aching from osteomyelitis, an acute infection of the bone marrow." A future editor, obviously, that only a mother could love. The result of all this is a narrative that never seems sure of its own center of gravity.

There's Rosenthal's personal story: the painful rise from a Bronx housing project, the consuming ambition; the neglect of a wife grown ill and obese, the dumping of the woman who reportedly rubbed creams into her lover's acne-laden skin and put in 17 years waiting vainly to become the second Mrs. Rosenthal.

Analogous to the stories from private life are the newsroom "horror stories" (the term is the author's)--the blacklist that could consign a reporter to limbo or at least the outer suburbs, the chance remark that could leave a career dead-ended if picked up by "a hair-trigger-tempered editor whose disposition was not improved by alcohol."

Some stories are already a matter of public controversy--such as that of Raymond Bonner, whose El Salvador reports critiquing U.S. policy were first encouraged, then discouraged, and who finally left when he was pulled off the beat. Or the case of science reporter Richard Severo, cast into limbo after accepting a book contract with a house other than Times Books (though based, be it added, on a series bylined for the New York Times).

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