Preach it, Abe Rosenthal

portada1Here is the New York Times today, adding a few kind words about the late A.M. “Abe” Rosenthal, an elite journalist who in the 1990s became a hero to those of us who are deeply committed to those familiar freedoms of the First Amendment. He was passionate about freedom of the press and freedom of religion, even for unpopular religious minorities.

The Times tribute editorial has a handle on half of that equation:

When A.M. Rosenthal’s years as executive editor of this newspaper were over, he wrote fondly of his first day on the job here as a 21-year-old cub reporter. He rushed off on an assignment — a hotel homicide — and after he had proudly flashed his press card and asked to see the corpse, he was told by a detective, “Beat it.” That rebuff was a perfect starting point for Abe Rosenthal. He died on Wednesday at the age of 84 after a remarkable six-decade career that included numerous newspaper achievements but none more of a personal memorial than his fierce defense of press freedom — his bristling refusal to accept “Beat it” from government.

This toughness culminated momentously in The Times‘s battle with the Nixon administration to publish the Pentagon Papers, the government’s own classified history of the grievous missteps that mired the nation in the Vietnam War. He put it this way: “When something important is going on, silence is a lie.”

And all the people said, “Amen.” A nice phrase: Silence is a lie.

That kind of reminds me of one of those edgy “On My Mind” columns that Rosenthal used to write. You can dig into the Times archives and find them, but there are also a few floating around online.

So preach it, Abe Rosenthal.

What follows is a large chunk of a column entitled “When Is It News?” from 1999.

After a lifetime in daily journalism, I still worry when real news is treated as no news at all.

Journalists write about what interests them and, they hope, a slice of their particular audiences large enough to keep their newspaper or TV station a daily habit.

In free countries, the variety of journals and broadcasts guarantees information on every subject that touches on what is important in human life, with large dollops of what is deliciously unimportant. Together they are life colors, separating free people from the dreadful dirty-gray of despotism.

Every subject — but not quite. Sometimes journalists decided some subjects were not news — like the Communist slaughter of millions of Soviet citizens, the Holocaust, poverty and racial hatred in our own country, or certain universal essences like religion and sexuality.

Next Tuesday, in a United Nations committee room, delegates of 19 countries will meet on a subject not mentioned on the agenda — slavery: not slavery yesterday, but today, and by all signs for a lot of tomorrows. It is a subject that with shockingly few exceptions is evaded by journalism and democratic political leadership.

I do not know just why. Perhaps, in journalism, it is because in its magnitude it is too complicated and varied for our poor minds to deal with. And anyway, there are no real spot slavery stories — just ongoing horror and misery, and who needs more of that?

Maybe it is because mostly slavery befouls third-world countries that are the current favorites of so many Western journalists, intellectuals, “statesmen” and businessmen. In some of its forms, slavery enchains the bonded child workers of India and Pakistan, and prostitutes in sexual playgrounds like Thailand.

These varieties do not grab much journalistic or diplomatic attention. The slavery involved in the U.N. meeting is the kind that free people thought had disappeared with Abe Lincoln — living bodies captured by slave traders and bought and sold like meat, as in Sudan.

Sudan’s slaves come from the south of their country. They are trapped in the three-decade-long civil war between the Muslim north and the largely Christian and animist south. Khartoum sends armed raider-trains southward, to take and sell slaves, and grab food sent to war victims by international organizations.

The slaves live slave lives — murderous labor, rape, hunger, torture, the totality of degradation.

As an old-fashioned defender of human rights, Rosenthal wrote dozens of columns on this topic and others related to it. He refused to stop.

Does anyone else have a favorite Rosenthal column on one of these issues?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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