Visions and Failings

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For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

The death of Abe Rosenthal, former executive editor of The New York Times, marks a final passing of the torch from the old journalism guard to the new. Rosenthal stepped down as editor in 1986 after running the country's top news department for 17 years. He had orchestrated The Times's coverage of the Vietnam war, the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, and made bold changes to the paper that were widely emulated by other publications. Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger said in 1986 that Rosenthal was "one of the titans of American journalism."

The Times's obituary last week called Rosenthal "abrasive, a man of dark moods and mercurial temperament," who could "coolly evaluate world developments one minute and humble a subordinate for an error in the next." When I worked in The Times's news department more than 20 years ago, we all lived in fear of incurring Rosenthal's anger. In the four years that our careers overlapped, he and I had, maybe, three conversations, and brief ones at that. The hierarchy was unmovable, he at the top, I somewhere near the bottom.

One day Rosenthal was walking through the newsroom and overheard the deputy foreign editor make an off-color remark. The very next day, the man was reassigned to the sports department as a copy editor, a stunning demotion. For hours he sat in front of his new computer terminal, staring blankly at the screen.

Rosenthal's influence waned over the years, especially after The Times edged him out of his job as a columnist in 1999. But he commanded great respect, and his legacy as a visionary editor remains unquestioned.

It seems a shame that a few other editors around the country appear unable to uphold some of the standards that Rosenthal so carefully nurtured. At the Ventura County Star, northwest of Los Angeles, the staff has been in an uproar over editor Joe Howry's handling of an ethical problem involving one of his subordinates, managing editor Richard Luna. Luna had apparently demanded that a sports reporter get media credentials for him to attend sporting events.

Luna was not assigned to cover such games and did not qualify for the credentials.

But Howry, the Star's editor, did not initially seem to think he needed to tell his staff what punishment Luna might get, according to a report in the trade publication Editor & Publisher.

Finally, the newspaper brought in a human resources executive from its parent company to investigate the incident and other possible ethical breaches by Luna.

Staff writer Tamara Koehler said in a story in the Star that executives had taken action only "because there was such upheaval from the staff. You know, the peasants were coming with pitchforks."

Another example of questionable behavior by people who run newspapers was reported last week in California's Marin County. The New York Times said the new owner of the weekly Point Reyes Light, Robert Plotkin, had accused the former owner, David Mitchell, of trying to strangle him.

The Times said Plotkin obtained a temporary restraining order in February against Mitchell, a 62-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner who sold the business to Plotkin last November but still wrote a column for the paper. But Plotkin recently pulled the plug on Mitchell's column, and Mitchell wants his column back. Perhaps these two will grow up soon.

And in Florida last week, Tampa Tribune executive editor Janet Weaver apologized to her staff after being arrested for drunk driving.

"The most heartbreaking part of it," she said, "was to embarrass the paper and put the paper in a bad light."

After her arrest, Weaver called the newsroom and told her crew to put it in the paper.

At least she did the right thing.

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.



Nick Madigan