Something Not Great About Rosenthal: How He Dealt With Gays

One of the chapters left out of yesterday’s Times obit of Rosenthal was his treatment of gay staff members when he was managing editor and executive editor. Gay people say he was oppressive.

“It was the presumption of everyone at the Times that in order to have any possibility of being promoted or getting anywhere if you were gay you had to stay in the closet,” says Charles Kaiser, a former clerk to Rosenthal.

In his book, The Gay Metropolis (and in his obit for the Observer), Kaiser reported that Rosenthal had blocked Walter Clemons from becoming a daily book critic at the Times in 1971 after conducting an informal investigation of his homosexuality. (Clemons went to Newsweek). Another writer whose career he damaged was Richard Meislin, a former favorite. Meislin was a foreign correspondent in Mexico City when Rosenthal learned that he was gay. (By one report, Meislin had brought his Mexican boyfriend into the newsroom on a visit home. Rosenthal asked others who the man was. Ka-boom!)

Michelangelo Signorile wrote in the Advocate in 1992:

Staffers say he chastised two editors for not telling him previously that Meislin was a homosexual. Rosenthal apparently decided that Meislin, as a homosexual, shouldn’t represent the Times in Mexico and eventually pulled him back, though Meislin was doing what some editors consider to be exemplary work.

Meislin was not assigned another foreign post or sent to Washington, D.C., which would be a usual next step. Instead, he was brought back to the New York newsroom to do a job he hated. “What kept me from leaving the paper,” says Meislin, “was that one of the [other] editors took me in his office and said, ‘We know you’ve been screwed, but don’t do anything rash. You have a long career ahead of you, and Rosenthal will be leaving soon.'”

Meislin declines to comment. Though he himself wrote about Rosenthal in a piece about the late Doug Schmalz published inthe Media Studies Journal:

Like most gay people whose careers overlapped A.M. Rosenthal’s tenure as the Times’ top editor, Schmalz had hidden his sexual orientation from most of his superiors as he rose for nearly two decades through the newsroom ranks.

Kaiser notes that when he criticized the Times in a piece he wrote for Newsweek (about the Times protecting Rosenthal’s friend Jerzy Kosinski during a fabrication scandal), Rosenthal lashed out at him everywhere, virtually outing him. “He said I had written the piece because I was gay, and that all my sources must have been gay. As a matter of fact none of my sources was gay, but at a meeting he said that he was going to summon every gay employee at the paper to find out whether they had been my source. He didn’t do so. But half the world then knew I was gay. My stance then was, ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.’ I was furious at the time, but looking back on it, he did me a big favor. Once you’re out, it’s a lot easier.”

As soon as Rosenthal left, the paper’s culture changed. When Max Frankel succeeded Rosenthal, he had an understanding with Times publisher Arthur M. Sulzberger Jr. to change the climate for gays. “It was the most important thing Max did,” Kaiser says. “The Times went from being the most homophobic major institution in America to being the most gay friendly major institution in America.” In his memoir, Frankel writes proudly of finally getting the word “gay” into the Times after years in which Rosenthal had forbidden its use.