Andrew Rosenthal is a former NYT editor. He now splits his time between teaching and working with a Swedish start-up publication. Ollie Banks sat down with this heavyweight of the journalism world to learn more about the prodigious figure he cut in his field.
You’re a very independent person, yet your career followed in the footsteps of your father.
Yes. My father was a journalist, a very influential man in his time, and for that reason I avoided journalism like the plague. I dropped out of college after my freshman year, and went to the University of Chicago. It was a gigantic mistake.
Why was studying in Chicago a mistake?
I was a really good student, but I got rejected by the Ivy League schools. I actually think it was a good thing. My basic reaction to college was that it was just like high school, except you were supposed to take it seriously. Going to a class and reading Ancient Greek Tragedies was not a serious endeavour: it was fine, and I was perfectly happy to do it, but it taught you nothing about the real world. We used to say that the school motto was Where Fun Goes To Die. You were also in the South Side of Chicago, which was completely isolated from the rest of the city, unless you had a car. It was terrible. I was seventeen years old – I had no reason to go to college except that it was what you’re supposed to do.
You went to college early?
And I started school early. My father taught me to read when I was four years old as an experiment, and when I went to Kindergarten in Tokyo, they didn’t know what to do with me. So they put me in first grade, and taught me to read all over again in their way. It instilled in me a lifelong rebellion against authority. Pointless orders drive me insane. Teaching a child how to read again is an exercise in stupidity, in my mind. Even at the age of five, or however old I was, I realised that.
I always a year ahead of myself, and I was smart. I had straight As and got over 700s in my tests. I was a National Merit Scholar. I did well at stuff we use to assess the value of our children, which as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realised is mostly garbage. We use it to maintain elitism.
How old are you?
I’m 20 years old.
Fifty years ago, Oxford wouldn’t have even considered letting you in. You wouldn’t have been made President of the BSHR. Times have changed, and that’s a good thing. But I’ve come to struggle with the role of elitist institutions in upholding suppressive societies. Britain, like many others, is a racist nation. They don’t want to admit it, just like the US doesn’t want to admit it; nor do the Swedes, as I’m beginning to realise.
I’m not talking about the Klu Klux Klan here: these are normal societies. And institutions are one of the core components of systems that maintain racial and class separations.
I dropped out of college, and I needed to get a job. I got an interview with the Associated Press. They were looking to create an assistant position that they didn’t have before, which was more than just carrying pieces of paper around. The AP was able to kill two birds with one stone – hire someone actually able to do the job, as I was well trained by my father; whilst sucking up to the Executive Editor of the New York Times.
It turned out that I was amazing at it. They called me Radar, a reference to a M*A*S*H character, because I just knew what to do. From the time I was really young, I had been trained in journalism in various ways by my dad, who was truly one of the greatest journalists of his lifetime.
As sometimes happens, especially in men of my father’s generation, he was mentally ill in many ways.
I wanted to just keep working with the AP, but I was only nineteen. They told me that the day I graduated they would hire me, but for the time being, I should go back to college. I did some work for them covering basketball whilst at Denver. In my sophomore year I moved to a local daily to be a police reporter. It was a full-time job, across nights and weekends, so as a senior I took it easy. I tried working at the school paper, but it didn’t go very well because; well, it wasn’t a real newspaper. So I got a job making pizza instead. I got really good at spinning dough.
But you didn’t graduate from college?
Technically, no; though I told everyone I did. I had been one credit short, and they insisted I take freshman English. I thought this was ridiculous. I was a published writer! At graduation, I didn’t walk across the stage, and I certainly didn’t get a degree. About five years later I found some Advanced Placement tests I’d taken in high school, having achieved the top score in English. I sent them to Denver and they awarded me the degree. It was backdated to the seventies.
I went to work at the AP in Denver. I chose Denver over New York for a variety of reasons, including the fact that it was more distant from my father. Eventually I was sent to Moscow – I was unusual in that I spoke Russian.
Why did you speak Russian?
I went to Columbia Preparatory and Grammar School. It had been around since the 1700s, and only closed for an extended period of time during the Revolutionary War. But it wasn’t like the all-male prep schools that send most of their kids to Yale and Harvard. We were children of people of arts and letters, and there were a lot of Jewish kids. We had to take Latin, which was incredibly useful. We also studied French, Spanish, or Russian. I don’t know why I didn’t take Spanish.
I always tended to go in the direction that people didn’t want me to.
I had a fantastic teacher, Anton Meyeroff, who was born before the October Revolution. He spoke this wonderful Petersburg Russian. It was like having a private tutor. When I got to college, they put me in a third-year class. I hated it, but I always loved Russian. I had lived in Poland when I was little, so my brothers and I spoke Polish. Every Russian teacher complained that I had a Polish accent, but that’s true of every American, because of where we accent words. When you live there, they all think you’re Estonian. My cat came with us. That cat lived in four different cities across both sides of the world.
I became the Bureau Chief. I thought Russians were pretty interesting people. The West, especially the United States, Britain, and France, have zero understanding of Russian history and their mentality.
What’s the Russian mentality?
Extremely paranoid – but for good reason. Very self-protective. They have no irony in their humour, and barely any sarcasm. Very literal-minded. It was accepted as fact in Russia, particularly during the Soviet Union, that the Allies delayed the opening of the Western Front so that Stalin and Hitler could beat each other to a pulp. They saw Stalin as a gigantic threat. To this day it’s still thought that Western countries look down on Russians, because it’s absolutely true. We underestimate the degree to which they will do anything it takes to protect themselves.
Trump is the same. Republicans who claimed not to understand what Trump was doing were either lying or very unintelligent. When a cat goes to the litterbox it’s because it has to pee, and when it goes to the food tray it’s because it has to eat. When Donald Trump acted it was because of ego and avarice, and to ascribe other motivations to him is very dangerous because it assumes that he abides by the rules of society. Those of us who knew him, which includes me, knew going into the presidency that he was a sociopath. For similar reasons, the theorists don’t understand Putin.
Everything that Putin does is to protect his political position and to preserve the borders of Russia. If you try to think of him as a philosopher, you’re not only wasting your time; you’re actually playing his game.
What autocrats like that want us to believe is that they’re subtle thinkers. They want us to believe that we fit into the intellectual system that we create, but they don’t. When we take them at their word, we destroy democracy.
You don’t think that Trump acted in that way partly out of political strategy?
Yes, political strategy: making himself richer and more powerful. I’ve been a journalist since birth. He was educated as a flim-flam artist since birth. His father brought him into it, and he didn’t take the opportunity to change. He discovered very quickly that there was no sin he could commit that would undermine his public authority.
He once said that he could shoot someone in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue, and no one would do anything. He actually did it. He killed people, for political reasons, and nothing happened. Nothing! He was rewarded: twice they impeached him, and twice he was let go by Republicans that let him go. When they took their oath to be impartial jurors, they lied. He won’t pay back the $400m dollars he owes either. Is he going to go to prison for not paying his debts like you or I would? No.
Do you think his presidency was a product of the system? Of American politics?
Yes. Americans are easily manipulated. The big problem is that it’s a multi-trillion-dollar industry. There would be no money in it if people could reach agreements with each other, have intelligent conversation. Wealth only comes from politics because people are intolerant. Public figures are entirely devoted to the preservation of the less than 1%; there is no other agenda. Give me a billionaire liberal and I will show you a hypocrite. Protest singer Phil Ochs once characterised American liberals as twenty degrees left of centre in good times, and twenty degrees right when it affects them personally.
Rich liberals like Felicity Huffman?
She’s the paradigm of American liberalism in the twenty-first century. She’s very proactive. She supports all the good causes. She goes out and gets arrested. She’s a great artist. It makes absolutely zero difference which college Felicity Huffman’s children go to. Let’s face it, most of the hot-shit schools turn out to be not so hot. Yet she paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes for people to take the SATs in lieu of her kids. All sorts of celebrities got caught doing this. It happens all the time, in the UK too.
Many of the top 1% identify as liberals, but they’re not liberal at all: they aren’t willing to give up any of their own privileges. How is that liberalism?
What happened after the Moscow Bureau?
The Bureau was great. I enjoyed it. But I wanted to leave the AP for personal reasons. I received a call from my dad that he was going to retire. That meant I could work at the Times, so I applied to the Washington Bureau. I covered the presidential campaigns, and was a military correspondent for a year – a job at which I sucked. But it was educational for me. I was White House Correspondent during the Bush Sr. presidency. My partner was Maureen Dowd, the best writer and journalist I’ve ever known.
I loved it, but I was getting weary of the travelling. I was made the Washington Editor for four years, and then I moved to New York, to become the Foreign Editor. It was amazing. For a period, I was Foreign and National Editor at the same time, because our Foreign Editor quit to move to the LA Times, and the boss asked me to run the section until the election was over. Well, it turned out that the election wasn’t over until December.
There was a change of leadership at the Times. My mentor became Executive Editor, and he made me Assistant Editor for news. That meant I had to worry about the paper coming out each day, and my first hours on the job were during September 11th, 2001. I spent the rest of that year editing a section, ad-free, called “A Nation Challenged”, which we won a Pulitzer Prize for. It was horrifying what happened, but for journalism it was incredible.
By 2003 I wanted to get out of the newsroom, and in the midst of another shakeup Gail Collins asked me to be her deputy in New York.
I had absolutely no clue what editorial writing was, or how to do it, but it seemed like a lot of fun.
Plus, I really liked Gail – so I said yes. It just so happened that she was technophobic, and I wasn’t. I got my first email address in 1987.
You must have been one of the first people using email outside of the military.
Well I was in the Soviet Union in 1984 and the following year, I got my first personal computer. It was imported from Finland, and it was an Apple IIc. I used it for everything, including to digitalise the Moscow Bureau’s books, since I was the chief. Funnily enough, I was the darling of the accounting department because all my numbers came back correct, what a shock.
I had been obsessed with technology my whole life, but most people at The Times were clueless. So, whilst in Washington I got given $600,000 for a project on the opinions section, and my boss told me to do whatever I want – I was the tech person in my department. We just started putting things online. It wasn’t quite like a blog – there isn’t a precise word for it – more like group writing. We had Rosanne Cash, daughter of Johnny Cash writing for us, and Elvis Costello too. Rosanne had undergone brain surgery to remove a tumour which had wiped out all her musical ability. So, she had to gain it back. The three of them wrote a song together, sending MP3s back and forth on our website before finally publishing it. We started getting new people in and the possibilities of it were amazing, because it was an open field. I felt completely independent from the Editorial department
I ended up becoming an Editor since Gail hated the job, and we launched an all-new medium: op-docs. I decided that I wanted video Op-Eds.
Op-Eds are opinion pieces?
From people not on the staff of the newspaper. You know that outrageously racist piece that appeared on the front of the NYT by Tom Cotton? That was an Op-Ed. The Times invented the term and have now abolished it, which is bizarre to me. They’re called “Guest Essays” now. An essay is what you write in school for your teachers!
I put together a proposal to hire people to launch the video medium, but the higher-ups gave me zero dollars for it. I had to go out and do it on my own. We found a documentary filmmaker that shared our vision, and let him loose. All the money came from external sources – foundations and institutes and so fourth – but we created a whole new thing. We got three Emmy Awards, two Peabody Awards, and were nominated for Academy Awards twice. Not me personally, but I was a producer and executive. It was incredibly exciting and fun, and I loved being an opinion journalist.
And you stayed an opinion journalist for a while?
I retired in 2016. I was 60. I wrote a column for The Times for two years, but then I decided I really had to move on. I tried my hand teaching, at the NYU school of journalism. I guest-lectured in a lot of places, and taught a graduate class at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, called Race, Politics, and the Media.
It was eye-opening for everybody, including me. I’ve become obsessed with the need to reform the racist language we use in the media.
In the United States, it’s terrible. We’re not doing it deliberately, nor is it a matter of bad words: it’s about the tropes built into our language. But it is avoidable.
What are you working on at the moment?
Reviving local journalism. There are very few medium-size cities in the United States that pay full-time reporters: not even one. As a result, governments are operating on all levels with almost total impunity.
You’re saying that journalism jobs are concentrated in the big coastal cities?
Most large cities in the United States now have one daily newspaper, if they’re lucky. There may be media organisations operating online there, but they have almost zero impact, and very little readership. The rest is television – which is a nightmare.
What about social media journalism?
Social media is just chat. If I tweet that the sun is shining, first you have to figure out who sent it. In most cases, when the account is unverified, you have absolutely no idea who’s behind it. Second, you have to find out whether the person that sent it has a window, thirdly whether they’ve looked out of it, and fourth, whether the sun is actually shining. Some journalists report by twitter, and it’s incredibly irresponsible. Trusting information online is like walking out into the street and asking a stranger whether they know about it. In both American and British journalism, the idea that you can only publish verifiable information died a long time ago.
There is a discussion about the balance between speed and accuracy in journalism at the moment, and it’s complete nonsense. At the AP, or the UPI or Reuters, or the Agence France-Presse, if you’re not fast, accurate, and correct, you’ll be fired. We don’t see value in the truth anymore.
I got a call recently from a friend who asked if I wanted to help a struggling start up. I said of course, thinking it would be publishing in English. He told me that it was in Swedish and I thought about it for less than ten seconds more before agreeing.
I thought that journalism was journalism – that turns out not to be true. The closer you look, the fewer countries you find that actually have freedom of speech.
Neither Britain nor Sweden have free speech – it’s regulated – and the idea that you can have degrees of freedom is ridiculous. It’s like pregnancy: you either are or are not. I’ve learned from studying the Swedish press laws that the people who wrote the American constitution, despite their multitude of failings, did get some things right. Why should politicians who know nothing about freedom be allowed to regulate speech? They want you to make the choices they feed you. It was in England that the term the Fourth Estate was coined, during a debate in Parliament over whether or not there was free speech. I would not trust the US government to manage their relationship with the media properly, not in a trillion years.
I’ve settled into the Swedish newspaper Bulletin. We started being more productive. We put a paywall. Our subscription levels are doing very nicely. We’re on our way to breaking even.
How do you feel about paywalls?
Putting free news online was the most stupid thing a group of people ever did. It may end up being suicidal for the news industry. You are the third generation of people which we have trained to believe that journalism has zero monetary value. We bought into the lies that perpetuate our online economy. The internet isn’t free: we pay our service providers for connection, electricity for our laptops and phones, coffee every time we work in a coffee shop. We sell our data to Google and Facebook in return for social media and email access. But we think it’s free, and we don’t put a price on journalism. Online news has destroyed newspapers all over the world.
Without revenue, a newspaper can’t survive.
A lot of the things we’ve done in response to the decline have made it worse, too. I could go on about the opinionisation of news until the end of time. Facebook was founded for the purpose of making money by stealing their data, not to create community. The very first act that Zuckerberg committed online was a criminal offense: they broke into the database at Harvard to access student data. They never got prosecuted for it, not even kicked out for it. Once you’re in, you never leave. What’s the failure rate at Oxford?
The failure rate at Oxford is very low.
As if everybody they pick is perfect. They’re not going to admit they picked the wrong person – it’s embarrassing.
We passed a law in the United States that prevented internet aggregators from being prosecuted for their content. That’s like legalising a gun that can spray three hundred bullets a second. Supposedly, we wanted innovation and democracy to flourish. In reality, big business just wanted to make money. That law now allows Bezos and Zuckerberg to loot your personal life and host anything they want, no matter how racist, libellous, or defamatory, with no legal repercussions whatsoever.
Do you have any advice for your younger self, and for anyone that wants to go into journalism?
Learn a language. If you’re American, it should be Spanish. The US is becoming a bilingual country, and there are more Spanish speakers here than in Spain. Then, you should try to understand economics – business is easy to figure out, but the economy is hard. Write, and get published. It’s fine to take journalism classes, but also take history. Push yourself on your weak areas: if you hate covering politics, do politics. The media is where generalists flourish, and today you need digital skills too. Knowing how to edit a photo or video is invaluable, and you have to be able to write on your phone if need be.
Get a job at the biggest news organisation that will hire you, and write your head off. When you feel like you’re not being edited anymore, which will happen in a year or two, move to a bigger one.
It was fantastic to talk to you Andrew. I learned a lot.
Thank you, it was my pleasure. Best of luck in the future!
Cover illustration by Ben Beechener