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The “New York Times”

- Abstract

To the Editor:

I appreciate the attention that Joseph Epstein gave my book, Behind the Times: Inside the New New York Times, in his provocative article, “The Degradation of the New York Times” [May]. I also thank him for describing me as an “energetic reporter” and availing himself in his piece of so much of the material from my book. However, I must quarrel with his major misreadings of the book. To take one of his most serious misrepresentations, he writes that the Times’s former executive editor A.M. Rosenthal is “one of Diamond’s great villains.” Mr. Epstein then suggests that I consider Rosenthal “guilty of effectively moving the Times to the Right.” Further, Mr. Epstein accuses me of calling Rosenthal a “misogynist and homophobe.” Wrong, wrong, wrong.

First, Rosenthal is, in fact, a larger-than-life figure who dominates my book by the force of his personality and intelligence. While he appears throughout the book—my narrative encompasses the 1960′s, 1970′s, 1980′s, and 1990′s, the period of his greatest activity at the Times—I devote an entire chapter to his accomplishments. It is called “Last of the Red Hot Mamas”—Rosenthal’s own description of himself to me in our interviews (how can a Sophie Tucker figure be a villain?). Second, I show how the publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, and the business side of the paper moved the Times to the Right. Rosenthal, the fearsome editor, I concluded, served as another of the hired hands of the Sulzberger family. (Nowhere, not so incidentally, do I criticize this rightward shift; I report it.) Finally, Mr. Epstein’s homophobia reference is particularly egregious. I devote close attention to the Times’s treatment of the AIDS epidemic and examine some gay activists’ allegations that the Times news department lagged in its early coverage. I specifically report that some subeditors in the newsroom interpreted Rosenthal’s attitude as homophobic. But then I specifically document how Rosenthal’s Times—and Max Frankel’s—did devote great attention to the AIDS story. And I analyze how demographic considerations shaped coverage along with news values. It is an analysis that goes against the conventional wisdom of the subject.

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