Jewish World Review April 5, 2001/ 12 Nissan, 5761
News that wasn't fit to print
THE cherry blossoms are bursting into pink flame around the Tidal Basin, the Senate is busy chipping
away at the First Amendment, and the nation's editors are in town this week for the annual
convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
The editors are talking this year about newsroom leadership and protecting the credibility of their
newspapers in particularly challenging times.
Marvin Kalb, executive director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy
at Harvard, hosts a forum on the "complexities'' of delivering the news, and on the other side of the
Potomac the same Marvin Kalb is interviewed in a new documentary film at the Newseum, a
museum of the news. Every editor in town ought to make a point to see it.
Credibility, the film makes clear, is the root, leaf, flower and fruit of the news business. Without it no
news organization is worth the nickel that newspapers used to cost. "Holocaust: The Untold Story,''
produced for the History Channel and the Newseum, tells how America's newspapers, and
particularly the New York Times, fumbled one of the biggest stories of the 20th century through bad
judgment, poor leadership, lazy reporting, submission to government manipulation, capitulation to
prejudice and general incompetence.
A.M. Rosenthal, who joined the New York Times as a cub reporter in 1943 and rose to become
its executive editor three decades later, describes his paper's performance in covering the
Holocaust: "It was no good. It was paltry. It was embarrassing. It was wrong. It was morally and
On July 2, 1942, for example, the New York Times reported the murder of 700,000 Jews and the
Nazis' travelling gas chambers in a brief dispatch on Page 6. A light-hearted account of Gov.
Herbert Lehman donating his tennis shoes to the war effort was placed in a prominent spot at the
top of page one that day.
When the U.S. government confirmed a report in 1942 that Hitler had put into place the plan to kill
all the Jews, the New York Times ran the story on Page 10. In 1944, when 40,000 Hungarian Jews
were deported to the concentration camps and an additional 350,000 were scheduled to be
exterminated over the following three weeks, the revelation, based on "authoritative information,''
was limited to four-column inches tucked between department-store ads on page 12. Space on
page one that day was devoted to a lengthy account of the crowds celebrating freedom and
independence across America.
Laurel Leff, a professor of journalism at Northeastern University, studied every edition of the New
York Times from 1939 to 1945. She counted more than 1,100 stories relating to the Holocaust, but
only six page one stories about the slaughter of the Jews. The news was there for someone with the
patience to search it out, but it was an impossible task to piece together a coherent account of what
was going on in Europe. Innuendo and verbal ambiguity undercut the impact of the evil.
The New York Times' responsibility was unique, because it was, and still is, the single most
influential newspaper in America. Newspaper editors look to the New York Times -- "all the news
that's fit to print'' -- to see what's important and what's not.
Arthur Sulzberger, the publisher of the New York Times and a Jew, was determined that his
newspaper would not be identified as a Jewish paper and "leaned over backwards'' to make sure it
wasn't. "The Times,'' says Abe Rosenthal, "was regarded as a newspaper owned by Jews edited
by Catholics for Protestants.''
In leaning over backwards, the newspaper occasionally fell over. But it wasn't just the New York
Times. "The press at the time was very lame, very patriotic, very much attuned to the principal
objectives of the administration,'' says Marvin Kalb. "There is no doubt in my mind that lives could
have been saved if the press had focused on this story.''
Abe Rosenthal agrees. "If the Times had come out big on this, that would have brought a lot more
attention in the country. However, I don't think that absolves the editors of those other
Accounts of the Holocaust, which had no such name then, were similarly all but invisible in the New
York Herald-Tribune, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Times-Herald
and the Evening Star (the capital's leading newspapers of the era) and The Washington Post. Abe
Rosenthal thinks this wouldn't happen today: "We would investigate the hell out of it.''
Nevertheless, the documentary gives pause for reflection on how easy it is to get it wrong -- or not
get it at all. This is a caution particularly needed today when corporate journalism often encourages
the bland to lead the bland. Such lapses and mistakes are rarely the stuff of life and death, but
nevertheless go to the heart of a newspaper's credibility. We must make sure we're
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©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate