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On Rosenthal's Watch

May 17, 2006

Facing efforts to improve the dismal status of women and minority- group members in the N.Y. Times newsroom of the 1970s, Abe Rosenthal resisted like an emperor who believes his power absolute. Someone named A.M. Rosenthal got a front-page obituary in the New York Times on May 11. Most of us at the Times knew someone called  “Abe,” with comic-strip fright marks around each letter. Abe was in charge of the paper for 17 years.             The Times obit emphasized his corporate role as managing editor and executive editor from 1969 to 1986, in a time of major journalistic change. The Washington Post lead spoke of his “key role” in modernizing the paper, and the Los Angeles Times referred to an era of “tumult and innovation.” In charge he was, and an innovator, but he did not rush to embrace certain types of innovation. Facing efforts to improve the dismal status of women and minority-group members in the newsroom of the 1970s, he resisted like an emperor who believes his power absolute.             The Times obit expended 4,196 words without mentioning the two Federal discrimination lawsuits brought against the newspaper on his watch: Boylan et al. v Times (1974-78) and Rosario et al. v Times (1974-1980). It also omits all reference to Abe’s loony refusal to allow “Ms.” in the news columns until 1986.             None of this is secret. These events were covered in Nan Robertson’s 1992 book, The Girls in the Balcony, in oral histories taken by the Washington Press Club Foundation, and in articles in Ms. magazine, Media Report to Women, Women’s eNews, and the Freedom Forum’s Media Studies Journal. Accounts of the settlement of the suits even appeared in the Times itself. But no one who vetted the obit thought these items fit to make the cut.         Both lawsuits started out as complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which issued permissions to sue after a year of talks with no progress. Only then could the women and the nonwhite employees, most of them black, get lawyers and begin the tedious process of discovery.             Harriet Rabb, lawyer for the women’s caucus, considered her three days taking Abe’s deposition to be most difficult period in the four years the suit dragged on. “He did not want to be called to account,” Rabb told her clients. In Nan Robertson’s portrayal, “Rosenthal yelled at Rabb, waggled his finger at her, jumped up from his chair as if to storm out, and . . . frequently demanded of Floyd Abrams, the famed First Amendment lawyer . . . : ‘Do I have to answer this?’ ‘You have to,’ Abrams replied.“             The suits covered employees of many departments, but both had their genesis in the newsroom. The reporter Grace Lichtenstein had a fierce confrontation with Abe in 1972 after she said on TV that the Times could use more women, blacks, Hispanics and American Indians on staff. Abe declared her a traitor in what she called the worst chewing-out of her life.             At about the same time, when Ms. magazine came into being, Lichtenstein began to chafe about having to ask women their marital status in order to call them “Miss” or “Mrs.” in the paper. No one had to ask men such questions. Complaints multiplied, and representatives from Ms. magazine and other feminist groups picketed on the pavement outside. They had no more effect than those of us inside.  The feminist publisher Paula Kassell took another tack. She bought 10 shares of Times stock and taxed the publisher at stockholder meetings about paying membership dues for executives at blatantly exclusionary clubs and other such issues.  A lot of that stopped. At the meeting on April 30, 1986, she finally got the publisher to agree to a debate by linguistic experts on  ”Ms.” He wrote her soon after that “Ms.” would be accepted as of June 20 and thanked her for raising the issue. June 19 was an odd day in the newsroom. The style notice was posted on the bulletin board, and an Editor’s Note was prepared for the paper. I was on the National Desk, handling SCOTUS, the Supreme Court story. That day, the Court ruled that sexual harassment at work was illegal, based on a case brought by Mechelle Vinson, a former bank employee. I found myself creating the first page 1 use: “Ms. Vinson said that the supervisor had forced her . . . .”            From my seat I could see some sort of fuss going on. Several Ms. magazine staff members were heading for Abe’s quarters with a large basket of flowers. I was taken aback. He hadn’t acted with the speed of light for heaven’s sake. But the ploy was probably good enough public relations, I thought. What I didn’t know was that Abe’s response to the Ms. women was typically imperceptive of his own blockheadedness. “If I had known it had meant that much to you, I would have done it sooner,” he said.             No surprise: All of Abe’s honorary pallbearers were drawn from his favorite genus, white males.
Tags: Media