How the NYT Missed the Story of the Holocaust While It Was Happening





Laurel Leff is an associate professor in the School of Journalism at Northeastern University and author of Buried by The Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper published by Cambridge University Press.

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What did The New York Times report about the Holocaust and how did its coverage affect America’s response to the Nazi genocide?

Throughout World War II, the American media published and broadcast timely, detailed, and accurate accounts of what was happening to the Jews in Europe. The New York Times alone printed nearly 1,200 articles about what we have now come to call the Holocaust, about one every other day.

The articles in the Times and elsewhere described the propagation of anti-Semitic laws in German allied countries; death from disease and starvation of hundreds of thousands in ghettos and labor camps; mass executions in Nazi-occupied Russia; and mass gassings in Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek. The articles also indicated that these were not isolated incidents, but part of a systematic campaign to kill all the Jews in Europe.

And yet, at the end of the war and for decades afterward, Americans claimed they did not know about the Holocaust as it was happening. How was it possible for so much information to be available in the mass media and yet simultaneously for the public to be ignorant?

The reason is that the American media in general and the New York Times in particular never treated the Holocaust as an important news story. From the start of the war in Europe to its end nearly six years later, the story of the Holocaust made the Times front page only 26 times out of 24,000 front-page stories, and most of those stories referred to the victims as “refugees” or “persecuted minorities.” In only six of those stories were Jews identified on page one as the primary victims.

Nor did the story lead the paper, appearing in the right-hand column reserved for the day’s most important news – not even when the concentration camps were liberated at the end of the war. In addition, the Times intermittently and timidly editorialized about the extermination of the Jews, and the paper rarely highlighted it in either the Week in Review or the magazine section.

What kept American journalists from recognizing the significance of the systematic murder of six million people? Worldwide carnage on an unprecedented scale helped obscure the Jews’ plight. There was also skepticism bred by fake atrocity reports during the previous world war. The Roosevelt Administration’s determination to downplay the news also contributed to the subdued coverage. But the media had enough credible information to treat the news of the extermination of the Jews as important. And the New York Times played a critical role in why it didn’t.

For no American news organization was better positioned to highlight the Holocaust than the Times, and no American news organization so influenced public discourse by its failure to do so.

Because of its longtime commitment to international affairs, its willingness to sacrifice advertising rather than articles in the face of a newsprint crunch, and its substantial Jewish readership, the Times was able to obtain and publish more news about what was happening to the Jews than other mainstream newspapers. In addition, Jews of German descent owned the Times and thus knew the fate of family members, some of whom they sponsored to immigrate to the States, some of whom they didn’t. The family’s deep, if not always amicable involvement with the American Jewish community also led the Times to learn much about the Jews’ situation.

So the New York Times was less likely than other news organizations to miss what was happening to the Jews. But it was also more likely to dismiss its significance. Fearful of accusations of special pleading or dual loyalties, the newspaper hesitated to highlight the news. In addition, the newspaper’s Jewish publisher believed that Jews were neither a racial nor ethnic group, and therefore should not be identified as Jews for any other than religious reasons. He also believed that Americans would only want to help Jews if their cause was melded with that of other persecuted people. He therefore ensured that his paper universalized the Nazis’ victims in editorials and on the front page.

The result: The New York Times was in touch with European Jews’ suffering, which accounts for its 1,000-plus stories on the Final Solution’s steady progress. Yet, it deliberately de-emphasized the Holocaust news, reporting it in isolated, inside stories. The few hundred words about the Nazi genocide the Times published every couple days were hard to find amidst a million other words in the newspaper. Times readers could legitimately have claimed not to have known, or at least not to have understood, what was happening to the Jews.

The Timess judgment that the murder of millions of Jews was a relatively unimportant story also reverberated among other journalists trying to assess the news, among Jewish groups trying to arouse public opinion, and among government leaders trying to decide on an American response. It partly explains the general apathy and inaction that greeted the news of the Holocaust.

We do not know how many Jews might have been saved had the Times acted differently. We do know, however, that the possibilities for rescue were never truly tested.

It is also clear that had the Times and other news organizations decided that the extermination of the Jews was important, the paper could have and should have highlighted it, regardless of whether it would have saved lives. The press alone could not have altered the currents of public discourse that swamped the news of the Jews’ destruction, and certainly a single newspaper by itself could not have accomplished that. Still, the Times had a moral and professional obligation to do more than be swept along with the tide.



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John Rohan - 5/11/2008

It's interesting when you contrast this to their Abu Gharaib coverage. In 2004, they frontpaged the story for 32 days straight:
http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1145998/posts


Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

N, Your theories about oil politics are ahistorical. Iraq has vastly greater supplies than Sudan, yet European countries, including Britain and France, did not hestitate to join the US and UN intervention in 1991.

The main differences between the European armies and the US armies are that they are smaller, more defensively oriented, less equipped with fancy high-tech weaponry, and based on mandatory service, not mercenaries. For all these reasons and more, only the US is in a position to lead a major international intervention, as in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. But the US does not have resources to intervene everywhere. A huge bogged-down occupation, like the current one in Iraq, precludes a major operation elsewhere, like Sudan.


Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007


"If the UN doesn't exist to halt these types of atrocities, why does it exist at all ?"

If you read the preamble to the UN charter of 1945, and study a bit of the history of the previous three decades in America and Europe, you will probably soon realize that the most important purpose behind the formation and continued existence of the UN was and remains to prevent another world war, like the First and Second World Wars. Darfur is not an act of aggression by one country against another as in 1914 or 1939. It is not the sort of problem the UN was intended to solve.

The more relevant, underlying question here is "why don't governments, inside or outside of the UN, do more to prevent genocide and other mass horrors" ? There are many reasons, but I think probably the most important is the one I already mentioned above. People tend to get really concerned only when it happens to "their people". From the many examples, witness, for one, all the tributes in the U.S. to the 2000 or so Americans slain in Iraq, versus the almost total silence there about the much bigger number of Iraqi civilians killed by Americans as a result of "collateral damage".


Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

N., We left the "context" of NYT and Holocaust many posts ago.

The "history" of western intervention in the Mideast in your latest post is confused, to put it charitably.

Roughly half of all oil in the world is in Saudi Arabia.
Saddam's 1990 conquest of Kuwait immediately threatened those Saudi reserves AND was a clear-cut act of blatant aggression against a sovereign UN member state. For these two reasons and others (such as a basic competency sorely lacking in the current US administration), George Bush senior's administration was able to rather quickly organize a multilateral, UN-backed and EFFECTIVE action to reverse the occupation of Kuwait.

This is collosally different from the disastrous set of messes resulting from the George Bush Junior administration's foolish stumbling in Iraq.

If you want to focus on the oil aspect of these very divergent histories (certainly an improvement from constantly viewing things through the lens of Islamophobia), take a look what happened to oil prices after the 1991 liberation of Kuwait, versus the movement of such prices after Wolfowitz's non-cakewalk of 2003.


Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007


Clever hyperbole is an improvement on crass missrepresentation but bogus bull still stinks. No industrialized nation gives less of its wealth to international "humanitarian causes" than the US, for example. Ditto bogus logic. US strongest world power = No other country has any responsibility to prevent mass state-sanctioned murder, for example


Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007


I doubt it. Even if you count Warholesque trash art donated to the Met for gazillion-dollar tax writeoffs, which has about as to do with humanitarianism as photograph-taking at Abu Ghraib.


Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Siegler, Your repeated crude insuations that I am anti-American are becoming tiresome.


Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007


After watching and rewatching the planes hit the towers a few million times on prime time TV, Americans "knew" and "acted". No more box cutters aboard aircraft now.

The same American political party that has lately been trumpeting its supposed policy of "spreading "freedom" did its best to torpedo efforts to intervene in the Balkans in the 1990s against mass murder there.

The deliberate ignorance and arrogance on the part of the current US administration towards the rest of the world (most recenty evidenced by the shuffling of likely war criminal Wolfowitz into a new senior international job he has next to no qualifications for) gives the lie to the claims of advancing freedom.

One cannot bluster and BS the UN, stomp on its charter, and insult several of its key members (in the runup to the botched Iraq invasion), and then expect it to do one's bidding (in Darfur).


Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Mr. Siegler, I did not remotely imply that "the "ignorance and arrogance of the U.S. government and its war criminals and its insults towards the U.N." are "causing genocide". The principal war crime associated with the current Pentagon, and its soon to be ex Nr 2 there, is torture.

A principal, though surely not the only, obstacle to international intervention in Darfur is indeed, however, the lack of global credibility of the US government and the lack of US troops, both of which are largely a result of W's hypocritical and badly bungled Iraq misadventure.


Hagbard Celine - 4/9/2005

And who, pray tell, did all the heavy lifting (and giving) in the tsunami aftermath?

Hmmmm?


Hagbard Celine - 4/9/2005

"The main differences between the European armies and the US armies are that they are smaller, more defensively oriented, less equipped with fancy high-tech weaponry, and based on mandatory service, not mercenaries."

So in other words, they ain't got nothin'.

You also forgot to mention that the European soldiers are erudite, educated, empathetic evian-drinkers, while our boys are single-minded purpose-built knuckle-draggin' stone-eyed techno-augmented killers... Thank God.

Hoo-ra!


Edward Siegler - 4/8/2005

Hey, I love to give America a good bashing as much as the next man. It used to be a favorite pastime of mine. The problem is that this sort of thing has become so frequent that it's becoming tiresome to me as well. But your constant attempts to relate everything, even a discussion about genocide and how it might be dealt with, to your buddy Bush is becoming even more tiresome. With Mr. Wonderful's reelection it's a lot more difficult to seperate America from Bush, especially in European eyes. So let's go back to discussing something more uplifting than him, like, say man's inhumanity to man.


N. Friedman - 4/8/2005

Peter,

I think you are incorrect when you write No industrialized nation gives less of its wealth to international "humanitarian causes" than the US, for example.

That figure you have in mind refers only to the US government's generosity. When the private giving is also counted - and, you will note, Americans are very charitable compared to the rest of the world -, the US ranks at or very near the top of the world in giving.


Edward Siegler - 4/7/2005

Mr. Friedman,

Yessir.

Mr. Clark,

If any of us cared that much we'd be writing letters to our representatives urging them to take action on Darfur instead of blabbering with each other on this website. And I wasn't aware that the U.S. gave anything to "humanitarian causes." I thought all those efforts were really attempts to control foreign countries.


N. Friedman - 4/7/2005

Edward,

I gather that you agree with me.


N. Friedman - 4/7/2005

Edward,

I gather you agree with me.


Edward Siegler - 4/7/2005

The point is that if George Bush were not president and Hussein was still in charge of Iraq, the genocide in Sudan would have been ended by now. Because America is the only nation on earth that's capable of responding to situations like the one in Darfur, America is in fact responsible for them. The European Union, Russia, China, all the nations of the U.N. and the U.N. itself are blameless because there is no reason for them to commit any of their resources to humanitarian causes while the U.S. could be doing this. If it wasn't for Bush and his his total failure to implant democracy in Iraq we wouldn't have this problem. Recall how effectively Clinton responded to Rwanda and Carter dealt with the genocide in Cambodia. These sucesses took place because Carter and Clinton are not Bush. If it wasn't for Bush the world would have regained its inherent morality and would have put a stop to Darfur immediately. And don't you dare imply that the Sudanese bear any responsibility for what's going on there.


N. Friedman - 4/7/2005

Peter,

The issue we were discussing is why no one intervenes in Sudan while there was intervention in Iraq including in 1991. I think I identified the pertinent information. You, by contrast, forgot the topic.


N. Friedman - 4/6/2005

Peter,

You evidently forgot the compliment I paid to you with respect to your criticism of Professor Polk. Now you are back to criticizing me. Just kidding.

More seriously:

In August of 1990, Saddam invaded Kuwait. Evidently, the US was not surprised at all by the invasion itself.

Our understanding of why the US decided to reverse the conquest is evidently less than perfectly clear. We can assume that the perception quickly arose, probably fed by the al-Sabbah family, the various emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia that Saddam threatened the entire region. Likely, Bush I's advisors also found a copy of a few books about the region and the fact that the countries were originally created by Europeans while the Arabs sought unity under one political platform or the other.

In any event, the perception arose that a united Arab region would be a danger to the West, not to mention our "friends," most particularly Saudi Arabia, in the various Arab countries. No doubt the concern was also that Saudi Arabia was next on Saddam's eventual battle plan.

By contrast, Sudan, like the other Arab countries, has oil. It does not, however, have an army that can invade Saudi Arabia or conquer the oil region. It has not threatened to invade Saudi Arabia or any other country that the US cares about.

The Sudanese regime, instead, is a threat to people in Sudan. Oil can and will continue to be sold whether or not the regime is genocidal, which it is (killing 18,000 people per month at present). Such internal matters unfortunately do not concern the world at all. Such is the case for the very reasons I have asserted.


Frankly, I think I have my history correct. I think you have taken matters out of context.


Edward Siegler - 4/6/2005

If you read the U.N.'s universal declaration on human rights you will see that protecting human rights is one of the U.N.'s core ideals. It has been ineffective in enforcing those ideals because there has never been a clear definition of when armed intervention is necessary. The U.N., at the urging of Kofi Annan, is now attempting to address this and other questions.

The U.N. and its member states have proven themselves capable of dealing with various situations through armed force. Korea, Hati, Kosovo and the recent French interventon in a former colony in Africa are only a few examples. Obviously the U.S. is not the only country capable of assisting in humanitarian interventions. To pretend otherwise is a thinly vieled attempt to evade what is really everyone's responsibility. If there can be an international consensus on what constitutes a case where armed intervention is necessary we will be much farther along in dealing with genocide. The problem is that there is an understandable reluctance to authorize military action in order to interfere in what can reasonably defined as a country's internal affairs - even when those internal affairs involve massive human rights abuses amounting to genocide.


Gonzalo Rodriguez - 4/6/2005

Mr. Clarke,

You say: "One cannot bluster and BS the UN, stomp on its charter, and insult several of its key members (in the runup to the botched Iraq invasion), and then expect it to do one's bidding (in Darfur)."

Perhaps this is so. But it is sad that stopping a genocide is only the "bidding" of the US and not that of the UN as well. If the UN doesn't exist to halt these types of atrocities, why does it exist at all?


Edward Siegler - 4/5/2005

You left out one thing, Mr. Friedman. You forgot to mention that the genocide in Darfur is ALL GEORGE BUSH'S FAULT!!!!


Edward Siegler - 4/5/2005

After writing that politicized finger pointing is an unfortunate response to genocide, you provide a perfect example this exact phenomenon, saying that that the U.S. is a major "obstacle" to intervention in Darfur. There's obviously been no misrepresentation here.


N. Friedman - 4/5/2005

Peter,

The main reason that the US does not intervene in Sudan is oil.

The reason that Europeans, who also have armies, do nothing about Sudan, is that the Europeans have essentially made horrors perpetrated by Muslims into invisible, unimportant events. Such, evidently, stands in the way of Europe's political aspirations in the Muslim regions as well as the continent's desire to have a secure oil supply and not to lose lucrative contracts.

Racism is also involved by both Europeans and Americans. As Bernard Lewis has noted, Westerners treat Muslims as if they were less than human so that they are not expected to behave very well.

Such are also the reasons that nothing was done during the 1980's and 1990's when as bad or worse things were happening in Sudan. And no one today even bothers to tell Sudan to free the 200,000 slaves taken during the 1980's and 1990's.

Interest, not decency, moves the world, unfortunately.


Edward Siegler - 4/5/2005

Peter, your commentary is a model of how genocide has been dealt with. Talking about the "ignorance and arrogance" of the U.S. government and its "war criminals" and its insults towards the U.N., as though this is what is causing genocide, is exactly the sort of politicized finger pointing that most of world turns to in response to situations like Darfur, where you seem to think that the U.S. wants the U.N to do its bidding. If the U.S. does get around to intervening to stop a genocide without waiting for the U.N. to act it will likely be charactarized as a "unilateral" attempt at extending America's "empire", as though the rest of the world doesn't bear any responsibility for not acting. We can only hope that this sort of bullshit will not continue to be peddled as an excuse for apathy towards genocide in future.


Edward Siegler - 4/4/2005

One of the most amazing things about the Holocaust, in my view, is that even with its example the world has continued to allow more holocausts to take place. I would like to see a broad international consensus to act in the face of mass atrocities such as the ones you've listed. Obviously this does not exist at the present time. Kofi Annan has called for a reexamination of the U.N. and its role in the world. We can only hope that a recomitment to the U.N.'s core ideals, as expressed in the universal declaration of human rights, will lead to the conclusion that some situations require military intervention. Absent this we will likely see more Rwandas and Darfurs, and nothing but apathy or politicized finger pointing in response.


Diana Applebaum - 4/4/2005

"We do not know how many Jews might have been saved had the Times acted differently."

It seems to me that this is a case where we have pretty much answered an historical question by running an experiment. The killing fields of Darfur have now gotten a tremendous amount of front page coverage - far more than anyone following events in the Sudan at this time last year could have hoped for or ecpected. And yet, the killing goes on.

No one in Europe was moved to intervene in the Balkans. Rawanda happened. The killing fields of Cambodia happened. Saddam Hussein committed mass murder. And there was a fair amount of publicity about the Armenian genocide even as it was taking place.

I used to believe that informing the public was sufficient to stop a genocide. I no longer do.

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