When ownership of The Washington Post changed from the Graham Family to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, it signaled a shift in the way news is delivered and consumed and raises questions of how newspapers can become more profitable.
Former Washington Post Metropolitan Editor Harry Rosenfeld’s new memoir From Kristallnachtto Watergate [Excelsior Editions] is an uplifting personal story and a clear-eyed look at the craft and business of journalism.
In an era of Twitter and blogs, this book is a history lesson on the development and production of several influential newspapers.
Rosenfeld was born in Berlin to Polish immigrants. His parents knew that storm clouds were brewing in Hitler’s Germany. The author recalls being excluded from German schools. When he walked in the room he heard his parents speak approvingly of Hitler, lest their son repeat their true feelings to someone connected to the Fuehrer. The final straw for Rosenfeld’s parents was Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), a time of destruction of Jewish businesses and the temple to which the family belonged.
Rosenfeld entered professional journalism at The New York Herald Tribune. He rose to become Foreign Editor. He paints a picture of the importance of establishing relationships with overseas correspondents and the importance of international coverage. His reflections on foreign reporting trips are an important reminder of the dedication of journalists, although foreign reporting has been scaled back due to budget cuts.
One of Rosenfeld’s crowning achievements at the Post was the transformation of the Metro section. As Washington residents began to flee the city for the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, Rosenfeld saw the need for extensive, professional coverage of the entire region.
Rosenfeld writes: "I pressed the reporters to get earnest about their work, especially by making contact with their relevant sources. My insistence on hard, quick reporting disturbed many on the staff, including some good writers."
The reader can visualize this as a sports movie montage in which a team of misfits, under a demanding coach is transformed into championship contenders.
All of his preparation and molding of the Metro paid off when on June 17, 1972, a burglary occurred at Democratic National Committee headquarters, which was then housed in the Watergate office and apartment complex. Since it was a local crime, the Metro desk took the lead in covering it.
He is candid about his relationship with Woodward and Bernstein (Woodstein, as Rosenfeld refers to them in the book) as individuals and as a reporting team. Woodward was initially given a two-week tryout on the Metro staff. When he didn’t perform, Rosenfeld recommended him for a job at the Montgomery County [Maryland] Sentinel, and suggested that Woodward check back with the Post in about a year. Woodward was so persistent, Rosenfeld writes that Woodward called him at home while he was on vacation to inquire about employment prospects.
The conclusion of Watergate is well known, but Rosenfeld had to fight to keep the coverage anchored by Metro reporters. National Editor Richard Harwood lobbied to take over the story. Rosenfeld pushed back, saying that Metro was best equipped to cover the story given they were young, eager and brought fresh insight to the multiple angles of the story. Woodward and Bernstein were both single at the time and worked long days and weekends to confirm details of their stories, often landing front-page exclusives.
Bernstein was, according to one news editor, someone who "needs his ass kicked or his carelessness and his inability to comprehend the importance of deadlines." Rosenfeld notes that he was documenting Bernstein’s dereliction to support terminating him until he began to deliver quality reporting on the Watergate story. He often frustrated editors with inferior work and carelessness such as renting cars to pursue stories and forgetting to return them, thus incurring substantial charges.
Rosenfeld reveals how power was wielded at the Post. When the 1973 Pulitzer Prizes were being considered, Executive Editor Ben Bradlee shifted the Post’s Watergate coverage from the National Reporting category to the Public Service category. There was fear the Post would not get the National Prize because its Watergate coverage relied on anonymous sources. The Post won for Public Service, which was awarded to the paper and not to Woodward and Bernstein.
Watergate transformed Woodward, Bernstein, and Bradlee into folk heroes. Rosenfeld avoided the spotlight and his book does not contain a hint of regret. While the Post still revels in its Watergate coverage, Rosenfeld dismisses the notion that the Post brought down Richard Nixon.
Several years after Watergate, Rosenfeld left The Washington Post to become Editor of The Albany [New York] Times-Union, a move that would raise eyebrows in today’s status-conscious Washington.
Harry Rosenfeld tells his story in an earnest way, without waxing nostalgic about the "good old days." His life began under tyranny and he availed himself of the freedoms under the First Amendment to hold the powerful to account for their actions. This memoir is a success story that is not boastful, but the culmination of a career of commitment to one’s craft.
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Kevin P. McVicker is Account Supervisor with Shirley & Banister Public Affairs in Alexandria, Va.