What Is an Editor?

The passing of A. M. Rosenthal is an occasion for reflecting on what exactly an editor does.

| Tue May 16, 2006 3:00 AM EDT

Article created by the The Century Foundation.

The Random House Unabridged Dictionary’s definition of “editor” says: “A person having managerial and sometimes policy-making responsibility for the editorial part of a publishing firm or of a newspaper, magazine or other publication; a person who edits material for publication, films etc.” While technically accurate, this description of an editor’s role misses the point. The job of an editor is, among other things, to prod, shape, wheedle, cajole, mediate, challenge, anticipate, nit-pick, chastise, inspire, support, confront, defend, harangue, and, as required, suggest different words, phrases, or grammar.

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The passing of A. M. Rosenthal is an occasion for reflecting on what exactly an editor does, in this case a newspaper editor in the sixties through the eighties when Rosenthal flourished. That was a pretty good period for newspaper leadership. Aside from Abe, as he was universally known even by people who, as was the case with me, never worked for him, there was the illustrious Ben Bradlee, still a formidable force as editor-at-large at the Washington Post; his editorial page colleague, Meg Greenfield; the late Tom Winship of the Boston Globe; and Eugene Patterson of the St. Petersburg Times. I knew them all, to one degree or another, and what they had in common was their impact on the people around them, reporters, other editors in the newsroom, and publishers.

The essential characteristic was vitality, an energy that was measured in passion for Rosenthal, natural charisma for Bradlee and Winship, wit for Greenfield , and a commander’s reserve for Patterson. They all get credit for editorial innovation and courage: Rosenthal invigorated the Times and set it on course for the multisection, multifaceted paper it is today. Patterson’s St. Pete Times was and is a model of responsible coverage of local and national issues. Bradlee and Winship both pressed for publication of the Pentagon Papers even after it was clear that the New York Times was in trouble for doing so. There is, inevitably perhaps, a somewhat gauzy quality to these accolades, especially compared to the immensely complicated issues of content and commerce faced by today’s editors.

The point is that whatever their technical skills, the innate talents of editors in any generation tend to be matters of style. The only sustained contact I had with Rosenthal came over a memoir that he contracted to write with Times Books in the 1980s. When I became publisher of the imprint, then part of Random House, I met with Abe several times to see if I could deploy my editorial resources (from among the list above) to get the book done. I got a sense of his intensity, his acute class consciousness and his utter devotion to an institution, the New York Times, which had elevated him from a pipsqueak in the Bronx to the pinnacle of American media. In one long, emotional meeting discussing the pages he had written about his childhood, Abe said he was grateful for what he considered my compassion about the insecurities of his early years. But the book was never published.

Abe’s greatness (as editor of the Times, he was definitely great) came from his imbedded drive for success and approval, combined with a set of values about journalism that kept him from crossing ethical lines to achieve his goals. I can only imagine how he resented that Bradlee always seemed as cool and irreverent as he was earnest and driven, because from my experience Abe was never really comfortable with his ferocity. I have no idea what Rosenthal did with reporters’ copy or whether he could write headlines. In any case, Abe Rosenthal as editor was about personality and character more than about words.

Whenever I hear it said about editors of newspapers and books, that they are not what they used to be, either as leaders or technicians, I come back to what has always had the biggest impact on my own work: the importance of editorial presence. In the late seventies and early eighties, William Greider, was the assistant managing editor of the Washington Post in charge of national news and I, as national editor, was his admiring deputy. Bill was (and is) a dazzling writer with strong political convictions, but what made him so effective was his ability to make his staff think about what they were doing. Bill was a pipe-smoker with a grooved face like Abe Lincoln’s. Every encounter Bill had with the multiple egos he led was about their objectives, not some agenda of his own. He did not intimidate, bully, or swagger. Bill reasoned and managed by doing so to get the best out of everyone around him. In the end, Greider was not supple enough as a corporate politician to rise further at the Post and went off to Rolling Stone and, although called national editor, turned to writing full time. As an editor, in the ways that really count, making other people better at their jobs, Bill was brilliant.

So, in this moment of bidding farewell to the iconic Abe Rosenthal, it is worth remembering that the truest legacy of editors is never just clean copy, smoothly packaged. It is leadership in matters large (such as protecting the integrity of institutions and fielding the demands of publishers) and small (such as making each writer and subeditor better practioners of their craft). Abe, Ben, Bill, Meg, and others have set very high bars for those that follow them today.

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