New York Times columnist, Abe Rosenthal, who ruled the Times with an iron, and some say a willful hand, as top editor for about 15 years ending in the late Eighties, released another of his volcanic eruptions of temper. This time, he has fulminated against my comments that under his tenure, the New York Times pulled back on their coverage of consumer issues in Washington. He claims that “The Times covered consumer affairs and consumerism more intensively than ever before…” Any charges to the contrary, he, in typical Rosenthal understatement, called “individually and collectively monstrous lies.” Well, well, well, let’s examine the object of his self-righteous outpourings. For what the Times does and does not cover frequently induces similar imitation by other leading newspapers, television networks and weekly magazines. One could see how this imitation flowed in the opposite direction in the late Sixties and early Seventies when the Times made an effort to cover the federal regulatory agencies from a consumer perspective. Suddenly, consumer reporting was “in” and papers, magazines and television stations hired consumer reporters.
When Rosenthal took the helm around 1973, the Times was receiving complaints from big business executives, typically transmitted during private meetings with editors, by telephone or during social occasions, that the newspaper was anti-business. Rosenthal moved quickly, developing suburban sections, style sections and other formats to appeal to upper income readers with soft features and other non-controversial material.
The Times’ Washington bureau got the word also. Reporting on “muckraking” and other newsworthy reports by consumer groups, once regularly covered by the Times, was routinely ignored.
The lone consumer reporter in the Bureau was frequently reassigned from the regulatory agency and consumer advocates “beat” to other topics or campaigns. Months would go by without a new consumer reporter replacing the departing one. By the late Eighties there were none.
Time and time again, Washington bureau reporters would shrug their shoulders and tell us how difficult it was to get a story past New York office. The late Jack Morris told me “I keep sending the stories up but they’re not making it into the paper,” indicating what was the use of spending the time to write them from Washington. Pretty soon, the Washington bureau chief got the message and didn’t bother wasting his reporters’ time.
Where once the pre-Rosenthal Times would cover the auto safety agency, the Federal Communications Commission and other consumer-related agencies from a consumer perspective, these agencies could breath easier, thanks to Mr. Rosenthal’s dogmas.
The Washington Post, seeing no competition from the Times here, drew back as well. What consumer reporting there was found its way into the business or style pages, far from the prominence formerly given such news in the front or “A” section.
The three television networks often take their evening news cues from the Times and the Post. They retreated as well.
Rosenthal did start a self-described consumer page every Saturday. Items of boutique interest to yuppie shoppers and some marketplace self-help features (news you can use) dominated the page.
However, Mr. Rosenthal knows what consumer news reporting is about. It is about investigating federal agencies when they are regularly surrendering to business lobbies and not enforcing or implementing the laws to protect the health, safety and economic rights of consumers. It is about covering Congressional hearings designed to find out why these agencies are sleeping on the job. It is delving into the cruel exploitations of consumers in the Times’ own New York City. This reporting needs reporters, resources, and courageous backing by editors when the pressure builds up by advertisers and their agencies.
Mr. Rosenthal says I never communicated with him about my complaints. Not true. I spoke with him by telephone in the mid-Seventies to urge him to cover the most effective student-funded and run citizen groups in the history of New York and New Jersey. The local media was covering these groups’ victories, investigations and reform agendas in the consumer, environmental and better government areas. But not the Times which never wrote a feature on these student public interest research groups and their offices, staff and canvassers working all over those two states.
Later wrote Mr. Rosenthal a letter which said that after twelve New York Times reporters complained to me about the low priority given consumer reporting, it was time to appeal to him. I called his office and confirmed that the letter had arrived.