Friends at the Top of the Times

By Charles Kaiser
Newsweek, November 22, 1982

What did the Times say?

For every artist, author, playwright and musician, that can be the most important question of a lifetime. No other medium remotely rivals the nearly absolute power of The New York Times over the fate of books or plays; its influence in music and art is also unsurpassed. "The Times can make everything possible," says Robert Gottlieb, editor in chief of Alfred A. Knopf.

What the Times said last week on the front page of its Arts and Leisure section mystified outsiders and shocked its own newsroom. In a spectacular example ofjournalistic overkill entitled "A Case History: 17 Years of Ideological Attack on a Cultural Target," the Times presented a 6,500-word apologia for Polish-born Jerzy Kosinski, who wrote "The Painted Bird" and other novels. The article suggested that a piece that appeared last June in The Village Voice questioning whether Kosinski was the sole author of all his books had been indirectly inspired by a smear campaign conducted by the Polish Communist government. Neither the Voice nor the Times provided conclusive evidence on the question of authorship.

Puzzling: The Times, of course, has as much right as any publication to defend Kosinski, but the enormous size and defensive tone of the piece seemed strangely out of proportion to its subject. It was particularly puzzling since the Times had featured an equally long, and equally glowing, piece about Kosinski on the cover of its Sunday magazine only last February. "It's just an astonishing and deeply disturbing thing," said one Times editor, echoing the views of many of his colleagues. "It's the Martian problem," he said. "If you were a Martian and you fell to Earth and you were checking the clips of The New York Times, how would you explain the presence of these two huge pieces on Kosinski in a nine-month period?"

According to many Times staffers, the explanation lies in the friendship that binds Kosinski to the paper's executive editor, A. M. Rosenthal, and its deputy managing editor, Arthur Gelb. Both men were involved in the preparation of the piece by John Corry. Like many powerful editors at other papers, Gelb and Rosenthal sometimes encourage pieces about their friends. But the Kosinski piece provided the most dramatic evidence to date of their willingness to use the power of the Times to reward friends and punish enemies. "It's real Louis XIV time," said one senior Times critic. "It's I am the newspaper and the newspaper is me'."

Times reporters and critics believe Gelb was eager to exonerate Kosinski of The Village Voice's charges partly because it was Gelb's wife, Barbara, who had written the earlier profile of the author in the Times magazine. "Do I think the Times wants to rehabilitate or exonerate Jerzy Kosinski?" asks Corry. "Sure, so do I. I want to exonerate him, I want to rehabilitate him. He was slandered." Gelb originally assigned the story to another cultural reporter, Michiko Kakutani, but after doing several weeks of research she told Gelb she did not want to write it. Gelb says Kakutani "didn't understand the assignment" — that's why it was given to Corry instead. Corry says he was terribly eager to write the article. Gelb denies that his friendship with Kosinski played any role in the treatment of the article. "Obviously no," he says. "This is a wonderful story — a cultural investigative story."

If the piece had appeared almost anywhere else it might have passed almost unnoticed. But the Times has such a preeminent position in the cultural world — and such a strong reputation for objectivity — that the Kosinski article inevitably caused distress, even among some of the paper's most ardent supporters. "You can't blame the people who run the Times for thinking the paper belongs to them," says Robert Gottlieb, "but those of us who have grown up with it secretly believe it's ours. The Times is in the same position as the Jews: it's expected to behave better than everybody else."

That is particularly true because of its remarkably comprehensive cultural coverage. Each year the daily Times prints 3,100 reviews, plus 500 more in the Arts and Leisure section and 2,100 in the Book Review. The culture department currently employs 31 full-time critics, 15 reporters, 45 editors, three news assistants and 11 clerks. From the outside there are 30 regular contributors and hundreds of occasional ones.

Control: At the head of this army of analysts stands Abe Rosenthal. He controls every page of the newspaper, except the editorial page and the op-ed and he controls the paper more completely than anyone ever has before. No clerk is promoted to reporter without his permission; no story is printed on the front page without his approval. Times critics are never told what to write, but they know they must answer to Rosenthal. When he objects to what one of his critics has to say, he will occasionally kill the column or review. "I don't feel this is another part of the newspaper I'm not responsible for," says Rosenthal. "I am responsible."

Only one man shares the responsibility for the cultural power of The New York Times with Rosenthal. He is Arthur Gelb. To him, Rosenthal has handed over responsibility for the Sunday Book Review and the Arts and Leisure section; also, the once-a-week sections, Weekend, Living, Home, SportsMonday and Science Times; the Washington page, the Travel section — and the daily sports and culture departments. Gelb and Rosenthal both grew up in New York City. Both men attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx; both joined the Times staff in 1944; neither of them has ever worked anywhere else. Before their marriages, both of their wives worked for Gelb as reporters when, still a clerk on the Telegraph Desk, he founded the paper's house organ, now known as Times Talk.

Rosenthal calls Gelb a "passionate, intuitive editor" whose ideas "come out of him like a Roman candle." He "walks too fast," according to his boss, but "he's really like a brother — probably closer because we have no sibling rivalry. I love him." One reason Rosenthal gives him working control over so many sections of the paper is that Gelb created or restructured nearly all of them. "He is one of those extraordinary forces, like Harold Ross must have been at The New Yorker," says Paul Goldberger, the Times architecture critic. "There's no question the paper wouldn't have anything like its present form without him."

"I am a very curious man," says Gelb. That may be the understatement of the decade. For nine years, starting in 1967, he was a brilliant metropolitan editor. From that position, unlike his successors in the job, he controlled all of the paper's daily cultural coverage. But his favorite story from that era was not about the cultural world: it was the tale of corruption that New York City police officer Frank Serpico told reporter David Burnham and that Gelb published in the Times in 1970. Did Gelb believe Frank Serpico when he first came to his office to tell him the police department was riddled with bribe takers? "No," says Gelb. "He had long hair and a beard — before reporters had long hair and beards — and I thought he was a nut. But after a while, he started bringing these beautiful women in with him, who would fondle him while we interviewed him. And I began to say to myself, Jesus, maybe he's really on to something!' "

The Serpico story was an "Arthur Gelb special," a generic form at the Times which is justly famous. "He has that surprisingly rare quality in an editor," says Renata Adler, a former Times movie critic. "He makes you want to write."

Vigilance: "There is a profound childishness about Gelb," one of his colleagues says of the 58-year-old executive. "It's the most phenomenal mix of craftiness and childishness I've ever seen." The childishness exhibits itself in boundless enthusiasms, some of which have resulted in profound eccentricities in the paper's coverage. The paper's most harmlessly idiosyncratic preoccupation is with Eugene O'Neill, whose biography the Gelbs coauthored. Nothing connected with the playwright's life is left unchronicled. Most recently, Gelb commissioned a lengthy profile of the Wallingford, Conn., hospital where O'Neill was treated for tuberculosis 70 years ago. Gelb's craftiness is reflected in his constant vigilance against being portrayed as more important than Rosenthal. "I've never had my name in People magazine," he once boasted.

As the executive editor's chief idea man and closest friend, Gelb can mobilize vast resources, protect a writer's copy from the paper's notorious layers of editors — and sometimes produce spectacular results, as with the Serpico stories. "Whenever someone says to me, 'You know you can't do that,' I say, 'Let's explore it,' and we really analyze it and you find outyou can doit as long as the reporting is solid," says Gelb. A former colleague has a slightly different perspective: "Gelb interferes," he says. "Interfering is good and bad. It's good because Arthur and Abe are both very bright men and they galvanize people. It's bad because it takes away the initiative and self-confidence of the intermediate editors who work for them. "

Rosenthal's and Gelb's intervention on behalf of Kosinski is probably the most dramatic example of the way they sometimes interfere in bad ways. But it is not the only one. In 1978, Gelb, on an impulse, decided to send a third critic to the opening of the Bob Fosse musical "Dancin'," to supplement the normal efforts fo the daily and Sunday drama critics. The third critic was Anna Kisselgoff, who was asked to write about the show's choreography. But when all three critics panned the show, Gelb decided three bad reviews were more than he had bargained for, and he killed Kisselgofi's piece. The senior critics reacted in anger, sending Rosenthal a letter of protest. Two of them actually offered their resignations, but neither of them was accepted.

"We know what New Yorkers get on the cover of the Times magazine — if it's Joe Heller, we know why," remarked one literary agent, referring to a story about Gelb's neighbor and good friend. But most Times critics do maintain their independence. Those who prosper combine critical integrity with a shrewd sense of what they have to do to keep their editors happy.

Show Business: The theater critic's post is trickiest, because the Times is so intimate with Broadway. Richard Eder, now at the Los Angeles Times, faltered in thejob because Gelb and Rosenthal felt he failed to find "enough fun" in the theater. "He thought it was just literature," says Gelb, "and it's really literature and show business." Frank Rich has never had his theater reviews tampered with, and he is popular with his editors, partly because he writes reviews that sell tickets when he really likes a show — a talent Eder never mastered. On the other hand, book critic John Leonard has frequently had his criticism edited, especially when he uses his pieces to express a political point of view. Recently, his review of Lou Cannon's new biography of Ronald Reagan was killed outright. Last year Leonard panned a book by Betty Friedan, a close friend of Rosenthal's, and the frequency of his daily book reviews was cut in half.

Gelb and Rosenthal are both enormously interested in New York's cultural scene, and that is part of the problem. After a lifetime of writing and editing arts stories, Gelb now says, "about the theater I know as much as anyone does." Rosenthal is even more self-confident. He says the art critic on the paper acts "most like an editor in the sense of selection" because Rosenthal and Gelb are less opinionated on the subject: "Art is one of the rare fields of life in which Arthur and I are humble."

Accountable only to the publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Rosenthal describes himself as unaffected by criticism. "I don't regard it as pressure if Jerry Schoenfeld [of the Shubert Organization] or Ed Koch or Henry Kissinger says, 'Jesus, you guys are wrong,' or 'Why don't you do this?' I don't regard that as pressure. You know why? I don't have to do it. What are they going to do? Bust me to civilian? You can't do anything to an editor on the Times." Given that attitude, it is hardly surprising that editors below Rosenthal and Gelb almost never question their judgments. Even after the embarrassing Kosinski affair, there seems little chance that will change.

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