For Max Rosenthal ’02, reading led to writing. And writing has taken him around the world, mostly the hot spots in the Middle East.
April 13, 2015

Rosenthal returned to Culver Academies for the first time in 13 years to talk with various classes and deliver a Global Studies Institute talk on “Making International News.” He is now a digital editor for Public Radio International. He has also worked for the Associated Press and The Huffington Post, covering foreign and military affairs, particularly the Middle East. He has been based out of Jerusalem, Beirut, and Cairo.

But, he admitted to several classes on Wednesday, a career in journalism never entered his mind during his time at Culver – where he was one of the first Batten Scholars – or the University of Virginia. He graduated from UVA with as a history major.

It wasn’t until after college, when he enlisted in the Army that a career in journalism started to creep into his thoughts. Rosenthal learned Arabic while in the Army and was classified as a linguist. He was stationed in Fort Hood, Texas, and Iraq, but spent most of his time behind a desk.

“It was hot and annoying in Texas,” he said, “And even hotter and more annoying in Iraq.”

But he spent hours reading articles and books written by journalists. Using the written word to inform people and shape their opinions “seemed like a really cool job,” he said. After his stint in the Army was finished, he enrolled at the Columbia University School of Journalism.

Using the written word to inform people and shape their opinions seemed like a really cool job

With his background, Rosenthal was assigned to the Middle East. All the information coming from that section of the world must really be studied with a “skeptical eye,” he said. When you are gathering your information, you must continually ask, “Why is this information coming out this way?” There aren’t really any truly objective and independent sources to rely on, he said.

Covering Syria, for example, required finding people who had been there, Rosenthal said, because entry at that time was impossible. But each person coming back has their own perspective or agenda and a reporter must take that into account when writing their story.

Plus, journalists covering the Middle East never really believe they have a solid grasp of the region. He felt overwhelmed when he first arrived in Beirut. His office “was me, in my apartment, with crappy internet,” he said. Developing stories seemed like it would be nearly impossible. “I was panicking.”

But when he talked with other reporters who had been there for years, they expressed similar feelings. “To a certain degree, everybody is still trying to figure it out,” Rosenthal explained. “It’s just how it is. We will always be outsiders. It’s not a newbie thing.”

There are moments when the reporter begins to see how and why things develop and flow. That is when you can begin to “peel back the curtain a little bit.” Those are what he calls “Wow, I kinda get it” moments.

Now based in Boston as part of PRI’s The World, a partnership with the BBC and Boston’s WGBH, Rosenthal is working with several platforms to distribute the news. Because there are so many platforms available, selecting the best one for getting the story “into the hands of the people” can be difficult, he said.

Rosenthal also answered several questions about his Culver experience. He said his time at Culver was “incredibly valuable but it isn’t the end-all, be-all” that some people claim. Students have to remember that who they are at the age of 18 is not who they will be as an adult.

What Culver does is prepare you for the future, especially in preparation for college, he said. Graduating from college “is the game-changer” when it comes to your future. And finding the right college is especially important. He transferred from Georgetown to UVA after his first year.

“The academics at Georgetown were incredible,” he explained. “It may have been just me more than anything else, but I wasn’t happy.” But going to the school that is the best fit for you is the most important decision you will make, he said, and if you need to transfer to find it, do it because “college matters.”

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