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Robert Rosenthal '71

Journalist

Robert Rosenthal
(Photo: Deanne Fitzmaurice)

It was 1971, and as a newly minted UVM grad, Robert Rosenthal had headed south to Manhattan to begin work as a New York Times copy boy. Not long after he arrived, the young political science major was assigned to the hush-hush team preparing the Pentagon Papers for publication, a landmark project demonstrating that the White House had systematically lied about America’s role in Vietnam.

“The Vietnam War was raging, Nixon was president, and the Times had all these documents that were classified top secret,” Rosenthal says. He leans forward at the desk from which he runs the Berkeley, California-based Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR). “One night I got a phone call at home, I still lived with my parents, and it was one of the editors. He said, ‘Come to Room 1111 at the Hilton Hotel tomorrow. Bring a big suitcase full of clothes. Don’t tell anybody where you’re going. Not even your parents.’”

Did you know? ...

  • “I was a horrible student,” Rosenthal says of his time at UVM. “I barely graduated, my average was so bad. The only reason I graduated–it’s a horrible reason, I think–is that Kent State happened, the students were killed, and they canceled finals.”
  • Rosenthal played on the UVM varsity hockey team that won the ECAC Division II championship–a first for UVM. But during most of his career, he spent more time writing a hockey column for The Cynic than actually playing. Even so, "Rosey" was a fan favorite.
  • Center for Investigative Reporting

Concerned the papers might leak, Times staff had set up a shadow office in the Hilton, shuttling reporters and editors (along with their typewriters, desks, and file cabinets) to the hotel while the documents were reviewed and prepared for publication. Bumped up to editorial assistant for the project, Rosenthal was charged with keeping track of the documents and filing them in the two cabinets editors had nestled in a corner of his hotel room.

Rosenthal picks up a stack of three newspapers — the forty-year-old Pentagon Papers editions of the Times.

“I don’t even know what I did,” he says, “but when it was done, one of the editors gave me a note, and I still have it, that said, ‘You should be proud of your role in this historic project. Your every suggestion was just right and your endurance was extraordinary.’ I was twenty-two and this was a huge deal. My career has been downhill since.”

Not quite.

Since the publication of the Pentagon Papers, Rosenthal, a father of three, has reached journalism’s heights as a reporter and editor, winning the Overseas Press Club award for magazine writing, the Sigma Delta Chi Award for distinguished foreign correspondence, the National Association of Black Journalists Award for Third World Reporting, and receiving a Pulitzer Prize nomination for international reporting. Today he holds the reins at CIR, a nonprofit outfit sitting at the vanguard of journalism’s perilous leap into the twenty-first century.

Rosenthal's career as a journalist is the story of American journalism itself. As a young man, he came up through the ranks as a traditional newspaperman, reached the pinnacle of that profession, and lost his job when that traditional model tanked. Now, four decades after he started in the business, Rosenthal is trying to resurrect himself.

“It’s come sort of full circle now, what I’m doing forty years later,” he adds. “The Pentagon Papers really, really showed me the crucial role of the press in democracy, the role of investigative reporting. And really showed me the power and the necessity of a free press, and the watchdog role.”