University of Vermont

University Communications

Telling Stories

(Photo: Deanne Fitzmaurice)

The particulars of Robert Rosenthal’s first year out of college read like something out of a John Le Carré novel.

It was 1971, and as a newly minted UVM grad, Rosenthal had headed south to Manhattan to begin work as a New York Times copy boy — then the de rigueur foot-in-the-door for reporters-in-training. 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. Behind him on his office wall hang several of Lewis Hine’s stark photos of laborers in early-twentieth century America, along with a number of African masks, trophies from wilder days as a foreign correspondent. Now, though, in blue jeans, cardigan, and loafers, the fit 62-year-old is the model of California casual. “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.’”

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. “I literally slept with the Pentagon Papers,” he says.

After several weeks working in secrecy, the first Pentagon Papers article was published on June 13, 1971. It created an immediate stir, and a short while later President Nixon managed to obtain a federal court injunction halting publication. Meanwhile, ABC was reporting that the Times had undertaken the sensational project at the Hilton, and executives were concerned the FBI would come swooping in. Rosenthal’s job was about to take another turn.

“I remember stuffing the Pentagon Papers into two really big valises, and being told by one of the editors, ‘Get out of here with that stuff! Go to the Times. Get these into the vault. Someone will meet you at the door,’” he says. “It was a really hot June day, and I remember going down the service elevator and looking in the lobby, and TV crews were setting up. I had to go out a side door, dragging these things — each must have weighed 150 pounds. I was soaking. The editor had said to me, if the FBI’s at the (Times) building, don’t go in. And I remember saying to him, ‘How am I going to know if the FBI’s there?’ and he said, ‘If you see guys wearing dark suits and little hats and you’re suspicious, just keep going.’”

“I literally slept with the Pentagon Papers.”

The only person waiting for Rosenthal at the Times was editor Peter Millones, who shepherded him, and the Pentagon Papers, straight to the newspaper’s vault.

Now, Rosenthal heads to the edge of his long desk, and 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 the Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit outfit sitting at the vanguard of journalism’s perilous leap into the twenty-first century.

Ever since newspapers’ traditional business model began to implode, many old hands (along with many new ones) have been groping around for angles to make journalistic platforms sustainable. Among the potential remedies are a growing handful of nonprofits like the Center for Public Integrity, ProPublica, and the CIR, all of which are experimenting with new avenues for producing and disseminating quality reporting.

“What I wanted to do was create a new model,” Rosenthal says — a model that involves doing traditional, shoe-leather reporting and distributing it on multiple platforms, from print to video and iPhones to games. “We want to adjust the storytelling to a new type of news organization, where it’s completely melded with the technology and you’re telling the stories the way people want to get them.”

Rosenthal is particularly well suited for the task, colleagues say, not because he’s a technological whiz, but because he remains able to focus on what’s at the heart of the journalism he does. “Rosey is a terrific editor and very well respected in the field,” says Richard Tofel, ProPublica’s general manager, using the nickname by which Rosenthal is almost universally known. “He’s got a real passion for great stories. I think that’s always critical.”

When Rosenthal took over in 2008, the center had a staff of eight and a $1 million budget. Today, Rosenthal says, CIR employs thirty-two people on a $5 million budget. In April, the organization published its most ambitious project to date, a nineteen-month investigation into seismic safety in California. It was run in nine papers across the state; broadcast over public radio, and nationally on PBS; distributed in California ethnic media outlets with stories translated into Korean, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Chinese; posted on 125 Patch sites, and broadcast on six ABC affiliate stations across California. There also was an iPhone app and even a coloring book to instruct children on how to react in case of an earthquake.

“For years I was thinking, ‘I’m a newspaper,’” Rosenthal says. “You write a story, it’s in the newspaper the next morning. And now I’m thinking, this is a great story — and we built a team around the story that can tell it in a multiplatform way. And that’s a huge difference.”

Field to front office

Following his unlikely early immersion in investigative reporting via the Pentagon Papers story, Rosenthal spent several years in New York, then moved to The Boston Globe as a reporter. At the end of 1979, he took a general-assignment job with The Philadelphia Inquirer — and within two-and-a-half years had accomplished one of his early goals as a reporter: in 1982, the Inquirer sent him to Africa as a foreign correspondent.

Again, the experience was immediate and intense. Just two weeks after arriving, Rosenthal traveled to Uganda to cover atrocities committed by that country’s military. The U.S. State Department had issued a travel warning, and very few Americans were in country at the time. Still, Rosenthal went, and, after entering what the army claimed was a military compound, was captured along with his driver and Los Angeles Times reporter Charles T. Powers.

“I’m lucky I’m alive,” Rosenthal says. “They whipped me. I was flogged, in a dungeon. There were bloody handprints on the walls where they had killed people with machetes. There were hundreds of Africans in there who were being slaves and probably all killed. It was horrible. Rats were running around on top of me at night. Where the Africans were, it was that deep in shit and urine.”

After three days, Rosenthal says, the U.S. ambassador intervened and he was released. Three weeks later, he was in Beirut, covering Lebanon’s civil war. “I wanted to go to wars,” he says. “I wanted to have adventures. And I wanted to write about them.”

After four years doing just that, Rosenthal returned to Philadelphia, where, reluctantly, he became the paper’s foreign editor. Although he initially refused the assignment, he relented after his boss plied him with whiskey. When he began the job, Rosenthal hung a large map of the world over his desk and posted a sign right above it. The sign read: “The year of living vicariously.”

When he became foreign editor, his reputation preceded him.

“He did have this aura of being the swashbuckling correspondent,” says Jane Eisner, a longtime Inquirer staffer who was the paper’s correspondent in London under Rosenthal. “That was a little intimidating for somebody like me — I was the second woman and the first mother that the Inquirer sent overseas. He set a tone that was hard to match.”

Eisner, who went on to edit the paper’s editorial page and is now editor of the national Jewish newspaper the Forward, said she quickly learned that there were two sides to the man. On the one hand, she says, he was as intrepid as advertised, jumping on stories “with astonishing speed and creativity.” On the other, he was more sensitive than your garden-variety swashbuckler. In 1986, President Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhael Gorbachev scheduled a historic meeting in Reykjavík, Iceland. Eisner says the summit was one of only two times as a foreign correspondent that she turned down an assignment.

“I could not for the life of me figure out how to cover the summit and get back to London in time for Yom Kippur,” she says. “I called him up and said, ‘I just don’t know how to do this,’ and he said, ‘Fine. Don’t go.’”

Rosenthal’s “year of living vicariously” turned into years as he climbed the editorial ladder, and in late 1997 he was appointed editor of the Inquirer. The move from foot soldier to commander, Rosenthal says, is “a huge jump which you don’t really understand until you do it.” First off, his foreign-correspondent buddies suddenly became his underlings. And then there was coming in from the field to a new life lived behind a desk. Still, Rosenthal says, he gradually came to embrace the role of editor.

“Over the years, I kept evolving,” he says. “I always had a lot of ideas, and I realized that as an editor, it was like running an orchestra — where you could have a lot happening at once and bring it all together, especially in a big newsroom.”

Rosenthal stayed with the Inquirer until 2001, when a long disagreement with management over how to reverse plummeting circulation led to his resignation. “I was fired, pretty much,” he says “They said ‘resign,’ but I didn’t have a choice. I was in the first wave of editors to get fired when the (newspaper) business model began to collapse in 2000–2001.” Then, although he’d only ever spent a night or two in the Bay Area, Rosenthal moved from the Inquirer to The San Francisco Chronicle, where he guided the paper for five years as managing editor.

Ice and fire

The way Robert Rosenthal tells it, the fact that he made it anywhere near papers like the Inquirer and the Chronicle is a miracle on par with the moon landing in 1969 (another story he worked on as a Times copy boy the summer before graduating). “I was a horrible student,” he 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.”

Varsity hockey, he admits, was a key motivator that pulled him through to that last semester. 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 on a team that won the ECAC Division II championship — a first for UVM.

“I was the worst guy on the team, but I was very physical and I tried really hard when I got out there,” Rosenthal says. He didn’t play much, but when the team went up by two or three goals, students in The Gut would start demanding that he be put on the ice, chanting “We want Rosey! We want Rosey!”

Photos from back in the day show a UVM team with long hair, sideburns, some serious mustaches. Rosenthal recalls the atmosphere in Gutterson as “bedlam” during those years when “Tiny” Leggett — a 6’9”, 330-pound Burlington Airport employee and ardent fan — brought his pet mountain lion, Rink, to the games.

Jim Cross, the Catamounts’ legendary, free-spirited coach in that era, fondly recalls a game against Providence where in about ten seconds on the ice, Rosenthal accrued four minutes of penalty time. “The fans knew what was going on,” Cross says. “When he got on the ice, the crowd would go nuts for him. They loved him.”

It’s clear that same grit and tenacity has driven Rosenthal’s career as a journalist. In a very real sense, his story 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.

“I’m sweating it like hell to keep it going,” Rosenthal says of the CIR. “I carry a lot of the old values in terms of the ethics and credibility and trust and standards — but it’s a completely different way of thinking in terms of distribution.”

“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.”

Now, at a point when many of his contemporaries have one eye on retirement, developing a sustainable way to preserve this critical function continues to drive Rosenthal.

“If I can build this place and make it survive and continue to employ people deep into the future,” he says, “it may be the most difficult thing I’ve done.”

This story originally appeared in the summer 2011 issue of Vermont Quarterly magazine. The Pentagon Papers are featured in a new film, The Post, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, out Decemeber 22.