Journalist Harry Rosenfeld, key figure in Watergate coverage, dies at 91

CINDY SCHULTZ/TIMES UNIONTimes Union Editor-at-Large Harry Rosenfeld is shown at his home in Albany in 2013.

Times Union Editor-at-Large Harry Rosenfeld is shown at his home in Albany in 2013.

ALBANY — Harry Rosenfeld, longtime editor of the Albany Times Union newspaper and a key leader in the Washington Post’s newsroom as it uncovered the Watergate scandal, died Friday.

The man who had fled Nazi Germany as a child shortly before the Holocaust made holding the powerful accountable to the public the focus of a career that stretched more than a half-century. 

Rosenfeld survived a bout with COVID-19 in December and was still participating remotely in Times Union editorial board meetings as recently as Monday. He never fully recovered, though, and complications from the virus ultimately proved fatal. He was 91.

Times Union Publisher George R. Hearst III on Friday called Rosenfeld “the conscience of good and fair journalism, always seeking the truth through rigorous inquiry and factual certainty. As a pioneer in investigative journalism, Harry set the bar high for countless others in his profession to do better and go farther in pursuit of the truth. Our company is forever grateful to Harry for his many years of service to Hearst newspapers, and our thoughts are with his family.”

Hirsch Moritz Rosenfeld was born in Berlin in 1929. His family succeeded in its years-long effort to immigrate to America in March 1939, five months after the synagogue they attended was burned down. They settled in the Bronx.

After graduating from high school, he worked as a shipping clerk at the old New York Herald Tribune before studying journalism at Syracuse University.

After graduating and serving in the U.S. Army, he started his newspaper career at the Herald Tribune. When it ceased publication, he moved to the Washington Post, where as metro editor he supervised — and advocated for — two young reporters named Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they dug into what would become known as the Watergate scandal.

Subsequent roles at the Post didn’t suit him as well, and he accepted an offer in 1978 to be the editor of Hearst’s morning and afternoon newspapers in Albany: The Times Union and the Knickerbocker News.

Mike Spain, who retired in 2018 as associate editor of the Times Union, said he was part of a generation of young journalists whose career choice was inspired by the Post’s Watergate coverage, which was honored with a Pulitzer Prize.

Spain had been at the TU just a few months when Rosenfeld arrived.

“It was pretty remarkable,” Spain said. “To us he was kind of a superstar. … We were lucky to have someone like that in this market.”

Rosenfeld stepped back to editor-at-large in 1994 but continued to have an outsized presence on the TU’s editorial board, Spain said, gracious in demeanor but pushing relentlessly.

“He was always hard, really hard, on public officials when they came in,” said Spain, recalling Rosenfeld grilling Mario Cuomo, George Pataki and Andrew Cuomo with equal zeal. 

“It didn’t matter the politics,” Spain said. “He was an equal-opportunity challenger in that regard.”

Casey Seiler, who joined the TU in 2000, said his friendship with Rosenfeld deepened over the years but reached a new level in 2020, when Seiler was promoted to editor.

“Having him as a sounding board as I stepped into this role was a comfort for me,” Seiler said.

Rosenfeld, he said, was a journalist who had worked at the Herald Tribune and Washington Post in the great days of American newspapering and had been at the center of one of its defining moments.

“Harry was able to take the longer view,” Seiler said. “All of that experience was brought to bear when he read the TU each morning, and that’s invaluable to an editor who is more concerned about the battles of the day, the week, the month.”

Rosenfeld’s life experiences were linked with his career and his outlook, Seiler said: In his youth he and his family fled Hitler; in middle age he was instrumental in exposing Richard Nixon; in old age he wrote passionately about the threat to democracy posed by Donald Trump.

Seiler last saw Rosenfeld two weeks ago.

“His voice was fainter but the energy was still very much there,” he said.

A Washington Post obituary published Friday described the younger Rosenfeld as, among other things, colorful, energetic and abrasive, and quoted the man himself as saying he could be a pain in the ass.

There was that, but there was another side too, said Jay Jochnowitz, senior editor for opinion at the TU.

“I came onboard here back in ’87,” he said. “He was my editor for a lot of my career and he was a big presence. But there was also something very easy about him, very personable. He was a genuinely nice guy.

“He would call me when he thought I wasn’t doing right and he was also very generous with his praise.

“He was an old-time, classic editor.”

Jochnowitz said he and the other members of the editorial board marveled at Rosenfeld’s longevity, and worried about him when he contracted COVID in December, not long before he would have been eligible for the vaccine.

After a time without Rosenfeld on the conference calls the staff held remotely through the pandemic, they were surprised to hear the digital voice blurt out during one meeting: “Now joining: Harry Rosenfeld.”

“He was still calling in as recently as Monday,” Jochnowitz said.

Rosenfeld is survived by his wife of nearly 70 years, Anne; their daughters Susan Wachter, Amy Kaufman and Stefanie Rosenfeld; and seven grandchildren.

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