David Laventhol: Dedicated and generous press freedom advocate

David Laventhol, the former publisher of Newsday and the Los Angeles Times passed away on Wednesday, aged 81. Dave served as chairman of CPJ from 2002 to 2005, using his low-key approach and savvy news sense to help guide the organization’s response to the unprecedented turmoil of the Iraq War.

In February 2003, when the U.S., with its allies, launched its invasion of Iraq, journalists covered it in three ways. Some “embedded” with military forces; others, operating independently, congregated in Baghdad; while still more attended the daily briefings at U.S. Central Command outside Doha, Qatar.

Dave asked CPJ to respond by organizing a daily news meeting during which we received reports from CPJ board member Michael Massing, who we sent to Qatar and who regularly raised concerns from fellow journalists with U.S. officials. We also heard from journalists in the field and responded with urgent alerts and interventions, including a campaign to win the release of a group of international journalists who were rounded up from their Baghdad hotel and imprisoned by Saddam Hussein’s forces.

Dave pushed us to do a special report on the shelling of the Palestine Hotel by U.S. forces in Baghdad, which killed two reporters. The 2003 CPJ report entitled “Permission to Fire?” determined that the attack was a result of a breakdown in command and control, and thus the deaths were avoidable. The report garnered widespread visibility, and generated considerable controversy.

What made Dave unique was the way he could pivot from the big picture like the Iraq War to other mundane but important tasks, like finding CPJ a new office. I worked closely with Dave’s real estate guru Mike Youchah on the painstaking task of negotiating on our current office in 2004, and overseeing the renovation. Dave also took particular pleasure in selecting the menu for the CPJ Gala, declaring once in his usual self-deprecating way, “you know you’re in charge when you’re asked to choose the menu.” (At a dinner in 2005 honoring Dave’s service to CPJ, columnist for The Nation and close friend Calvin Trillin celebrated his low-key style with a poem: read it here.)

The lesson Dave taught me, in his humble manner, is that every decision matters, and that even while you can never be totally confident of your choices, you must always take responsibility. “Dave was so low-key at times that you could almost miss the wry edge to his humor and the savvy strategies behind his decision-making,” recalled Ann Cooper, who served as executive director of CPJ while Dave was chairman.

Through his stewardship of CPJ–not to mention his generosity which continued long after he stepped down as chairman–Dave Laventhol gave his all to the cause of press freedom and stood up for the rights of journalists around the world.