Times editor recalled as passionate journalist

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NEW YORK (AP) – Former New York Times editor A.M. Rosenthal was remembered Sunday as a fierce defender of human rights and passionate journalist who strove to make sure his newspaper stayed free of bias in its reporting.

“He was the greatest newspaper editor of our age,” Arthur Gelb, another longtime Times editor and close friend of Rosenthal, told hundreds of mourners at Rosenthal’s funeral.

“Abe often said he wanted his epitaph to read, ‘He kept the paper straight.’ And that you did, my dear friend.”

Rosenthal died Wednesday at age 84, a month after suffering a stroke. His career at The Times spanned 56 years, rising from campus stringer to executive editor and including 13 years as a columnist after his mandatory retirement in 1986.

The hundreds who gathered at a midtown Manhattan synagogue included Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former mayors Edward Koch and Rudolph Giuliani and operatic star Beverly Sills. Also attending were journalists Mike Wallace, Gay Talese and Carl Bernstein, one of two Washington Post reporters who broke the Watergate story in 1972 and kept the Post ahead of the Times on the story under Rosenthal’s tenure.

Andrew Rosenthal, a Times reporter and one of Rosenthal’s three sons, spoke for the family. The service, and private conversations, were full of personal recollections of an editor who was famous for his temper, his intellectual brilliance and unabashed passion for reporting the news.

Some spoke of the peak moment of Rosenthal’s tenure – the Times’ decision in 1971 to publish the Pentagon Papers, thousands of classified documents detailing the early years of U.S. involvement and policy decisions in Vietnam.

“Abe and I met in the city room of the Times – we and Arthur Gelb were this unbreakable trio,” said Bernard Kalb, a former Times foreign correspondent. “It probably was the happiest time of our lives. As kids on the Times, so to speak, every assignment was a visa to a new world.”

William Safire, a retired Times columnist, recalled that after the Nixon White House tried and failed to block their publication, Rosenthal said, “We annoy the hell out of people, and we have our faults, but there is a difference between resenting the press and trying to control it.”

Safire, who had formerly worked as a Nixon speechwriter, also said that when a federal court sided with the Times on publishing the secret material, a big cheer went up in the newsroom. But Rosenthal was not without sympathy, saying to Safire, “This must be a very difficult moment for you.”

While Rosenthal was better known for bluntness than subtlety, Sills recalled that after a Times reviewer wrote of her that he would have “preferred a different singer in the role,” Rosenthal put a big poster of Sills on his office wall, then called the critic in to discuss an unrelated subject.

“He told me later, ‘I never mentioned you or the poster,”‘ Sills said.

Wiesel and others noted that as a Times op-ed columnist from 1986 to 1999, Rosenthal passionately expressed his feelings about injustices and violations of human rights around the world. On a visit to the Soviet Union, he upbraided a KGB official, who told him, “Mr. Rosenthal, we are not in a court of law here.”

Rosenthal, he said, replied, “Yes, you are. And free people are your judges.”

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