Burying the Holocaust: The New York Times Policy of Downplaying the Plight of Europe’s Jews

Laurel Leff, Buried by the Times (Cambridge, 2005)

One of the unfortunate casualties of the media’s war on Donald Trump and his ‘fake news’ response is a clear-eyed assessment of the extent to which outside factors influence what newspapers choose to print or not print. As a case in point, consider Laurel Leff’s thorough analysis of the New York Times coverage (or lack thereof) of the Nazi’s murderous campaign against the Jews of Europe. Leff exposes the Times’ intentional downplaying of what was happening out of a fear of being criticized for playing favorites due to the fact that the Times’ owner and publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, was Jewish.

Sulzberger was a proponent of the idea that Judaism is a religion and not the cornerstone of a people, a nation. He was opposed to Zionism, the movement that sought to re-populate the land where Jews had once lived as a separate nation, and he was opposed to any references in the Times that might be seen as special pleading for the Jews of Europe. Thus, an editorial about the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto did not mention those murdered were Jews.

Leff catalogs in news story by story and news bureau by news bureau the extent to which the Times either did not report on events, downplayed the extent to which Jews were the target of Germany’s policies, or buried references to Jews on the inside pages or at the bottom of stories.

An argument has been made that the Times coverage can be explained in part due to the fact that the world had never seen the like of Hitler’s war on the Jewish people. Yet, the policy of mass extermination was only implemented after a decade-long campaign that included policies targeting Jews specifically. The Times’ reporters had plenty of opportunity to get the story––events such as Kristallnacht––when mobs were encouraged to attack Jews and Jewish businesses, or the ad hoc exterminations carried out by a special branch of the German army called the Einsatzgruppen which traveled across German occupied Eastern Europe lining Jews up next to pits and mowing them down. The facts were known, but the Times elected to minimize their significance.

A second criticism, offered in a review published in the Times own book review section, implied that lives would not have been saved had the Times been more forthcoming about the extent of the problem. Does that mean a newspaper should not report a murder or horrible plane accident since it’s too late to save the victims? Of course not. Whether lives would have been saved had the Times’ reporting been more balanced is not the point. The bottom line is information the public deserved to know was withheld.

Sulzberger found various reasons to justify the Times’ failure to report the extent of the Nazi’s singling out the Jewish people for extermination. He along with the Roosevelt administration believed calling attention to what we today called the Holocaust would dampen the enthusiasm of the American people for fighting the war. Although Sulzberger did work to rescue a few members of his own family, he rejected involvement in large-scale attempts to save Jews as Jews.

What comes through in Leff’s analysis of the Times bureaus was how a policy from the top gets implemented in the hiring and management of reporters, in the handling of reports submitted by bureau reporters, and in decisions about where stories are placed in the paper.

The New York Times has been for more than a century the leading newspaper in the country––the paper looked to by millions as the source of “all the news that’s fit to print.” Leff’s history takes the lid off and shows us how newspapers are not unlike other social institutions. Lacking sufficient oversight they can become unbalanced, biased and swayed by self-interest. Fear that being more vocal about the plight of the Jews would affect revenue was clearly a concern. Leff demonstrates that newspapers can claim they practice objective journalism while violating the precepts of that ethnic on a daily basis. Readers beware.

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