Syracuse University Magazine

Memoirs of a Newspaperman


In a new book, Harry Rosenfeld recounts his journey from escaping Nazi Germany as a child to his role as an editor in the Watergate coverage that brought down a president

By Kathleen Haley

Harry Rosenfeld ’52 knows the heavy responsibility of being a good editor. The former Washington Post metropolitan editor guided two young reporters through a series of stories that led to the resignation of a U.S. president and changed the way a nation thought about investigative reporting. Most recognize the names of those reporters—Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward—but Rosenfeld’s may not be as well-known. His presence, however, in directing the prize-winning Watergate coverage is no less important. The facts were scrutinized and the veracity of sources was questioned, and Rosenfeld backed his reporters in telling the stories that eventually led to congressional hearings. “I knew the quality of our work, and I had total confidence in it,” Rosenfeld says. “We managed by our work to finally engage the government.”

Kristallnacht to Watergate book coverIn his new memoir, From Kristallnacht to Watergate: Memoirs of a Newspaperman (State University of New York Press, 2013), Rosenfeld chronicles his decades-long career as an editor, including his tenure at The Washington Post and the fascinating, complex time in which the Watergate scandal unfolded. He also tells of his years at the fabled New York Herald Tribune and Albany’s Knickerbocker News and Times Union, and looks back on life as a 9-year-old immigrant in New York City, having escaped Nazi Germany with his family. “The segregation, the denigration of the Jews was part of my normal life in Germany,” he says. “But I was old enough to know that I was deliriously happy to leave it, and I immersed myself in my American life.” 

The now-retired newspaperman, who remains active as an editor-at-large and a member of the Times Union editorial board, crafted a life in journalism that was influenced by a childhood under a brutal regime and channeled his perspective into the best of what it means to live in a democracy. His book has sent him across the country to packed audiences eager to hear the tales of a young boy from Germany who grew into the role of a tenacious editor.

Rosenfeld’s work in the newspaper business began even before he started at SU in 1948. He had already been working at the New York Herald Tribune as a shipping clerk, trying to get his foot in the door. “I wanted to do something of public service and I thought journalism would be a good vehicle,” he says. While studying English and American studies, and taking journalism courses, he covered sports for The Daily Orange. “It was an invaluable experience, traveling with teams, writing on deadline, doing feature stories,” says Rosenfeld, who was the first recipient of the College of Arts and Sciences’ Distinguished Alumni Award.

After college he became an editorial assistant at the Tribune news service before being drafted to serve in the U.S. Army. Newly married to his wife, Annie, he headed off to Korea, where he served as a clerk/typist in the military history section. Returning to the Tribune, Rosenfeld rose through the ranks as an editor and later managing editor for the news service and then foreign editor. In 1966, however, he left the struggling paper as it was about to merge with two other papers. “I was heartbroken,” Rosenfeld says. “I had spent half my lifetime there.” 

In his job hunt, Rosenfeld was offered a position by then-Washington Post managing editor Ben Bradlee. He began as night foreign editor before being assigned to head the foreign desk, which meant an around-the-world trip to become acquainted with staff correspondents and report for a time from Vietnam. Rosenfeld later took over as metro editor, the position he held on June 17, 1972—the day a team of burglars was arrested inside the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex. When Rosenfeld and his colleagues learned about the arrests, they knew there would be much more to the story than a simple burglary. “Right away we found a White House connection through Howard Hunt [a former White House employee whose phone number was found on one of the burglars],” Rosenfeld says. Into the second week, John Mitchell, the former attorney general, resigned as head of the Committee for the Re-Election of the President. “I knew then that this was going pretty high up,” he says.

With the implications for a national scandal, Rosenfeld was cognizant that their coverage would be picked apart and had to be irrefutable. Woodward and Bernstein, or “Woodstein” as they were referred to, began leading the reporting and generating scoops on the money trail. “They soon recognized what they had in their hands,” he says. “It was the story that would make their careers.” 

The pinnacle of The Post’s coverage came in two stories just before the November 1972 election. “The first said that the Nixon campaign had for years been on a sabotage campaign against its opponents, long predating the current campaign, and that they used all manner of dirty tricks funded by a slush fund,” Rosenfeld says. A long-worked-on follow-up story revealed how five people, including Mitchell, controlled the fund that was constantly being replenished. The final Nixon executive identified, and the most important, was H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, the president’s chief of staff.

A key, of course, in the work was “Deep Throat,” a moniker for one of Woodward’s sources. At that time, Rosenfeld decided against knowing the source’s name. Years later, but long before “Deep Throat” was revealed as FBI agent Mark Felt, Rosenfeld came to realize every editor should know a reporter’s sources. “What’s on the line is not the reporter’s judgment—it’s the newspaper’s,” he says. “The reporter extends the confidentiality on behalf of the newspaper. The newspaper has to make sure the reporter did the right thing.”

Nixon was re-elected that year, but in the following months, The Post, which was recognized with a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1973, continued its investigative pieces and Congress held hearings about the break-in. The end came on August 9, 1974, when Nixon resigned. “It vindicated our hard work at a time when no other media was doing it,” Rosenfeld says.  

The events were turned into a best-selling book by Woodward and Bernstein, All the President’s Men, and later a movie, with actor Jack Warden portraying Rosenfeld. “I thought it captured the work of the reporters accurately but less so that of the editors,” he says. “We did not make snap decisions, but argued and agonized over them.”

In 1978, he was asked to head up the two Hearst-owned Albany papers, and later a third, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, for a time. “I wanted to run my own newspapers, and this was my chance to do so,” says Rosenfeld, who retired at the end of 1997, but is still connected to the newspaper business.

With his many years as an editor, his best advice for those guiding reporters is to be open and curious and listen to their staff members—and be ready to defend them. “I think you have to be demanding, but with that you have to be fair,” Rosenfeld says. “They may not like you, but they have to respect you.”


Harry Rosenfeld (left) joins colleagues from The Washington Post at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 1973. Also pictured (from left) are style writer Donnie Radcliffe, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, and Ben Bradlee. 


Running the foreign desk, Rosenfeld (right) confers with Lee Lescaze (left) in The Post’s crowded newsroom.

Photos courtesy of The Washington Post