Editor Andrew Rosenthal: Balancing Opinions

The New York Times’s editorial page editor has no lack of opinions.

Montclair resident Andrew Rosenthal molds the views expressed on the editorial page of the New York Times from the paper’s midtown Manhattan headquarters.
Photo by Rafael Fuchs.

Few people in newspapering have as much influence on the daily dialogue as Andrew Rosenthal, editorial page editor of the New York Times.

Son of legendary Times executive editor A.M. “Abe” Rosenthal, who led the paper’s news pages from 1977 to 1988 and had his own Times Op-Ed column for 11 years, the younger Rosenthal says he strives to maintain a balance of views on the editorial pages and to make sure opinion writing is based on thorough reporting.

Rosenthal, 54, and the father of two, was born in New Delhi, India. Raised in Manhattan, he later lived in Japan, Switzerland, India, Austria and Poland. He and his wife moved to Montclair 13 years ago.
He says New Jersey is a great spot to raise his kids and keep an eye on the news world. The Garden State, he says, is often underrated.

“New Jersey was this weird place across the river, and I had a friend in New Jersey,” Rosenthal recalls about being lured here. “We moved in with one child, and our second child was born in Glen Ridge in Mountainside Hospital. She is a Jersey girl and thinks the song is about her. I have become this terrible New Jersey chauvinist.”

Fellow newspeople applaud Rosenthal’s efforts. “I think the pages are terrific, an authoritative liberal voice, always well reported and reasonably argued,” says Star-Ledger editorial page editor Tom Moran.

“The thing I like best is that [Rosenthal] is a passionate advocate for the perspective that the paper takes on the editorial page,” says Alex S. Jones, executive director of the Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. “He comes back and thumps them, repeats them and goes back and pounds on them. Your editorial perspective is one that can’t achieve what it sets out to do by doing a once-over lightly on an issue.”

New Jersey Monthly caught up with Rosenthal for this Q&A shortly after the Times Op-Ed page celebrated its 40th anniversary in September.

What is the biggest misconception about the Times’ editorial and Op-Ed pages?

It is that the New York Times editorial page agrees with everything that is on the Op-Ed pages. We can run a pro-Israel Op-Ed and another one against Israel and people think we agree with them. We are agnostic about what appears on the Op-Ed page. The columnists have the privilege and the burden of developing their own opinions on things.

The other [misconception] is that we kind of throw around opinions. One thing that surprised me when I started working in the editorial department is the amount of reporting that goes into the editorials. They are based on strong and solid reporting and a great deal of original reporting.

What do you think of the advent of citizen journalism on the Internet?

I am a citizen, too. It is a term that is a bit silly. What it really is is amateur journalism, but people don’t want to say that. The Internet has provided some new things, but what it has mostly done for journalism is expanded the power and reach of old things. For example, comments on articles are really letters to the editors.

The so-called citizen journalists don’t buy into the same self-imposed standards that a place like the Times does. We check the accuracy. I think it is fascinating and interesting, but news organizations that represent this as the kind of journalism that they do are failing in their responsibility to the readers. The Internet gives you a window into a lot of stuff that is not true.

Are blogs helping set the agenda for political dialogue?

I think there are some blogs that have. There are a lot of bloggers out there who spend a lot of time checking facts, double-checking facts and putting out polemic advocacy, and [they] have expanded this area of opinion journalism. They’ve made it harder for political journalists because the news cycle moves so much faster, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. They provide a lot of information for voters, but people have to take that with a grain of salt. People tend to go with political websites they agree with.

One thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of people who comment on a particular editorial or Op-Ed or column haven’t read it. They are reacting to something they read about it somewhere else.

How do you handle balance on the Op-Ed pages?

We view it as a balance over time. If we publish an Op-Ed that takes a position that is pro-X, we do not feel the need to run one the next day that is an anti-X opinion. We are not looking for people who agree with us all the time, and our Op-Ed staff thinks about the Op-Eds over time. We had a dispute about this with our previous public editor. We had run a piece that was anti-vegan and there was an uproar to run a pro-vegan piece immediately. But that is not what we are about.

How does this compare with media programming that is openly partisan, like Fox News Channel and MSNBC?

It is very different because we are not partisan in our Op-Ed selection or our columns or our editorials. We don’t view our job as thinking through the tactic of protecting one party or another. We are obviously aligned more with Democratic positions than Republican on the editorial page. We criticize Democrats a lot and it drives them crazy. We have principles we have to stick to.

When we endorse a candidate, we are not joining their campaign. We will not then just write positive things about them. Editorial writing is journalistic.

Do newspaper endorsements still matter?

I think they do. The idea behind the endorsements is that people should vote. We think we should tell our readers how we choose. Endorsements have an impact on very devoted readers who want us to sort out for them what the issues are.

I think that impact is mostly local. Some of our endorsements in the primary have real impact. It is very hard to assess in the presidential general election. In the case of the Obama-Clinton endorsement, you could make the argument that it would have been more dramatic and have had more of an impact if we had not endorsed her.

What are your thoughts on the Tea Party movement?

They succeeded in getting into the campaigns on the ideological and philosophical and social fringe of this country, and that fringe happens to be the far right. The big question I have for the Tea Party is, will [their newly elected] candidates turn into regular-caucus Republicans? I think there is a chance they will. If they do, I do not think they will get re-elected.

The Republican Party in Congress allows no deviation. It allows one thing and one thing only, the denigration and destruction of Barack Obama as a person and a president. That is the party’s plan.

How do you feel about developments in the state’s media, such as the Star-Ledger cutbacks and the uncertainty at NJN?

I think it is just terrible for New Jersey media. I am a great admirer of the Star-Ledger; it is a shame what is happening to them. It is a bad thing for New Jersey.

How is New Jersey media handling coverage of Governor Chris Christie and his administration?

Christie has gotten an incredible pass from the media in general. He ran as a conservative, small-government Republican, and the first thing he did was raise taxes on the poor and the elderly. He cut back on [property tax] rebates for the elderly and ridiculed Corzine for wanting to raise tolls that affect mostly out-of-state residents, and then he wanted to raise New Jersey Transit rates that affect mostly in-state residents. I think he is getting a pass.

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