In journalism, we’re taught to beware categoricals, such as always or never, first time or last time.
The reason, other than to resist hyperbole, is to guard against inaccuracy. If you’re asserting that something happened for the first time, all someone needs to do to destroy your credibility is to find a previous instance. Similarly, if you say something never happened before, you better be sure, otherwise you’re in trouble.
Which brings me to The New York Times editorial of May 12, saluting the former editor of the paper, A. M. Rosenthal, who died on May 10.
Eulogies are a notoriously gushy form, so I suppose I should make some allowance. But I cannot leave the following falsehood alone: “Conservative in many of his personal views, he never brought his own politics to the newsroom.”
“His own politics” favored Israel over Palestine (and Edward S. Herman of Z magazine has written about that bias) and inclined him toward Reagan’s anti-communist crusade in Central America.
Here are two examples of how those personal views expressed themselves in the newspaper.
One is from Grenada, the other El Salvador.
Francis A. Boyle, a progressive law professor at the University of Illinois, writes at counterpunch.org about the time Rosenthal spiked a commentary that Boyle had been commissioned to write by the Times itself.
“Shortly after the Reagan Administration invaded Grenada, I received an urgent phone call from an editor for The New York Times op-ed page,” Boyle recounts. “The Times immediately wanted to rush into print with two op-ed essays, one arguing that the Grenada invasion was lawful, and the other that it was illegal.”
Boyle was to do the anti-invasion piece.
And he did so.
But the op-ed editor refused to run it, offering, according to Boyle, this ludicrous justification: “Public opinion has shifted in favor of Reagan, so we see no point in running an essay that is so critical of him.”
Told that Abe Rosenthal himself had made the decision, Boyle called him up. According to Boyle, Rosenthal told him to “go to hell.”
Then there is the infamous case of Raymond Bonner, now back with the Times, who was writing for the paper from El Salvador in the early 1980s. Bonner was one of the first U.S. reporters on the scene of the December 1981 El Mozote massacre. Salvadoran troops, trained by the U.S., slaughtered hundreds of peasants in this incident. Bonner’s reporting sparked denunciations from the Reagan Administration, the Wall Street Journal, and other rightwing outlets. Within eight months, Rosenthal yanked Bonner out of Central America and placed him back on the metro desk—hardly a promotion.
Mark Danner of The New Yorker wrote about Rosenthal’s decision in December 2003.
Danner talked to Rosenthal, who said the implication that he removed Bonner because of pressure from the U.S. government or the CIA is “ridiculous, naïve, cruel, and slanderous.”
And Danner says that “certainly the idea that the government simply pressured the Times into withdrawing Bonner is wrong.”
But something else was at play: Rosenthal’s own politics, which the eulogist at the Times so categorically denied.
“Conversations with a number of Times reporters and editors, former and current, persuaded me that the campaign against Bonner was more effective than it might have been because of Rosenthal’s own politics,” Danner wrote. “Several people told me that Rosenthal made no secret that he was unhappy with Bonner, because the reporter, as one characterized the editor’s view, ‘was too willing to accept the Communist side of the story.’ . . . Several current and former times employees (none of whom would speak for attribution) pointed to a scene in a Georgetown restaurant a few weeks after the El Mozote story ran . . . in which Rosenthal criticized Bonner and angrily described the sufferings that Communist regimes inflict on their people.”
Never say never.