Jewish World Review May 12, 2006/ 14 Iyar,
Just the circus, and no elephants
Once upon a time, in a newsroom far away, I finished a story early in my first job, 10 pages of typescript pasted together to make a feature story 10 feet long, and carefully put it in the City Editor's in-basket.
I returned to my desk and waited for the torrent of compliments I knew was coming.
Finally, the City Editor, a gruff old pro of few words, picked up the copy and read through the first three or four feet of it and called me back to the City Desk. He crushed all 10 feet of it into something the size of a basketball and threw it at my feet. Terrified, I stammered out a question. Was there something wrong with it? What was it?
"See if you can figure it out. Then tell me."
He put his pencil to work without a further word, and I crawled past bemused colleagues back to my desk. After my second attempt, he carefully folded the pages and handed them to me, politely. "Better," he said. "But it needs a lot of work." After a third attempt an hour later, he sat down with me and went over the story, pointing out missing facts, misspelled words, gaps in the narrative, and other faults. A day later, a considerably shortened version actually made it into the paper, without a byline.
City Rooms aren't like that any more. There's probably a dozen federal regulations restricting cruelty to cub reporters, and if an editor tried that kind of testing today he would be hailed before the U.S. Supreme Court and the paper would be required to provide counseling for everyone across three ZIP codes. We're all very civilized now.
That old City Editor of my youth is gone, and so, now, is A.M. Rosenthal, "Abe" to his friends, which to my great fortune included me. Abe died at 84 Wednesday in New York, where he made the New York Times in his image (for a time), writing the book on how a newspaper ought to cover the world, giving new life to a newspaper on its uppers, and winning Pulitzer Prizes as if they came from boxes of Cracker Jack.
Like all good editors, Abe was both loved and loathed, the former by those who met his standards, the latter mostly by those who couldn't keep the pace he set as City Editor, Managing Editor and finally Executive Editor. He brooked no challenges to his authority. He once told a reporter who demanded to exercise his rights by marching in a street demonstration he was assigned to cover: "OK, the rule is, you can [make love to] an elephant if you want to, but if you do you can't cover the circus." We call that "the Rosenthal rule." I've invoked it at this newspaper, too.
Like all great editors, he had done it himself as a reporter, in New York, India, Poland, Japan and places between. He was a writer, spare and precise in how he used the language he respected, in a way that has gone out of fashion. He was a Jewish immigrant who grew up in the Bronx and went to night school at CCNY, and lit a roaring fire under his Ivy League editors and reporters. As a columnist he was fierce in defense of Jews in Israel and Christians abused for their faith. When the New York Times dumped the column he got as consolation when he retired from the newsroom, he moved to the rival New York Daily News and, to our considerable pride, The Washington Times.
We occasionally invited Abe down to Washington to talk to our editors. He liked us because he appreciated a good scrap, and taking on the richest newspaper in the world was a good scrap. For us it was like having lunch with Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth. Abe and his dishy wife Shirley Lord, a one-time editor at Vogue who knew how to smooth the edges of a rowdy newspaperman, became our permanent guests at the annual dinner of the White House Correspondents Association. When Shirley called two days before the dinner this year, to say Abe was felled with a stroke, we feared the worst.
Newspapermen are bad about using newsprint, which publishers are forever saying is so expensive, to indulge tales about the characters who make newspapers what they are, the shapers of a community's identity. Abe was an editor who made his newspaper something special for the world. I never particularly aspired to work on the New York Times, but I wish I had tried to work for Abe years ago, just to see if I could have.
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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.
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