Rosenthal was born on May 2, 1922, in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada, to a Jewish family. His father was a farmer, Harry Shipiatsky, who emigrated to Canada from Belarus in the 1890s and changed his name to Rosenthal. He also worked as a fur trapper and trader around Hudson Bay, where he met and married Sarah Dickstein.
The youngest of six children, he was still a child when his family moved to the Bronx, New York, where Rosenthal's father found work as a house painter. During the 1930s, though, tragedy would hit the family, with Rosenthal's father dying in a job accident and four of his siblings dying from various causes.
Rosenthal developed the bone-marrow disease osteomyelitis, causing him extreme pain. After several operations, Rosenthal recovered enough to attend public schools in New York City and attend City College. In 1943, at City College, he became the campus correspondent for The New York Times. In 1944, he became a staff reporter.
According to his son, Andrew, he was a member of the Communist Party youth league briefly as a teenager in the late 1930s.
As a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, Rosenthal spent a number of years overseas. In 1954, he was assigned to New Delhi and reported from across South Asia. His writings from then were honored by the Overseas Press Club and Columbia University. In 1958, the New York Times transferred him to Warsaw, where he reported on Poland and Eastern Europe. In 1959, Rosenthal was expelled from Poland dispatch after writing that the Polish leader, Władysław Gomułka, was "moody and irascible" and had been "let down—by intellectuals and economists he never had any sympathy for anyway, by workers he accuses of squeezing overtime out of a normal day's work, by suspicious peasants who turn their backs on the government's plans, orders and pleas."
Rosenthal's expulsion order stated that the reporter had "written very deeply and in detail about the internal situation, party and leadership matters. The Polish government cannot tolerate such probing reporting." For his reporting from Eastern Europe, Rosenthal won a Pulitzer Prize in 1960 for international reporting.
In 1969, Rosenthal became managing editor of the New York Times with overall command of the paper's news operations. During the 1970s, he directed coverage of a number of important news stories, including the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.
Rosenthal played a decisive role in the paper's decision to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Because this secret government history of the Vietnam War was classified information, publication of the papers could have led to charges of treason, lawsuits, or even jail time for paper staff. Rosenthal pushed for publishing the papers (along with Time's reporter Neil Sheehan and publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger). The Nixon administration sued to stop publication, resulting in a US Supreme Court decision, upholding the right of the press to publish items without "prior restraint" on the part of the government.
Columnist Wesley Pruden said about Rosenthal's editorial policy:
Like all good editors, Abe was both loved and loathed, the former by those who met his standards, the latter mostly by those who couldn't keep the pace he set as City Editor, Managing Editor and finally Executive Editor. He brooked no challenges to his authority. He once told a reporter who demanded to exercise his rights by marching in a street demonstration he was assigned to cover: "OK, the rule is, you can [make love to] an elephant if you want to, but if you do you can't cover the circus." We call that "the Rosenthal rule."
Rosenthal supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq and openly suggested that the United States should give Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, and Sudan an ultimatum and order the countries to deliver documents and information related to weapons of mass destruction and terrorist organizations. Otherwise, "in the three days the terrorists were considering the American ultimatum, the residents of the countries would be urged 24 hours a day by the U.S. to flee the capital and major cities, because they would be bombed to the ground beginning the fourth day."
Rosenthal was also reported to be extremely homophobic, with his views affecting how the New York Times covered issues regarding gay people (such as AIDS). According to former Times journalist Charles Kaiser, "Everyone below Rosenthal (at the New York Times) spent all of their time trying to figure out what to do to cater to his prejudices. One of these widely perceived prejudices was Abe’s homophobia. So editors throughout the paper would keep stories concerning gays out of the paper." One result of this is that the Times "initially 'ignored' the AIDS epidemic."
Rosenthal had a weekly column at the New York Daily News following his run as a columnist at the Times until 2004.Rosenthal was a Pulitzer Prize winner for international reporting.
He was a recipient of The International Center in New York's Award of Excellence.
Rosenthal died in Manhattan on May 10, 2006, eight days after his 84th birthday. He is interred in Westchester Hills Cemetery in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. His epitaph inscribed on his grave marker ("He kept the paper straight") was chosen to memorialize his efforts at the New York Times to deliver unbiased news.1943-1945—General assignment reporter: New York.
1945-1954—Reporter: United Nations.
1954-1967—Foreign correspondent: India, Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan, Ceylon, New Guinea, Vietnam, Switzerland, Poland, Africa and Japan.
1967-1968—Assistant managing editor.
1968-1969—Associate managing editor.
1977-January 1, 1988—Executive editor.
Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting (1960)
The Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award
An honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Colby College
The Light of Truth Award (1994)
The Guardian of Zion Award (1999)
The Presidential Medal of Freedom (2002)