The Awful Truth About Holocaust Reporting – And Its Legacy

US President Franklin Roosevelt (Photo: Associated Press)

US President Franklin Roosevelt (Photo: Associated Press)

The history of genocide reporting is both fascinating and frustrating. There are few things more difficult to accurately portray – through film, newspapers, blogs or photography – than the so-called “crime of crimes“. Acts of mass violence are complicated and coverage has often stripped them of their political context, redressing them in facile and misleading tropes. But there is no escaping the fact that reporters, filmmakers and journalists are integral to how we understand – and misunderstand – the causes and dynamics of mass violence. To the genocide scholar, this is nothing new. It is the daily grind.

As a teacher on a unique and fascinating course on genocide convened by Jens Meierhenrich at the LSE, I have had the opportunity over the last few years to reflect on how mass atrocities are currently covered by the media as well as how they have been covered in the past. In Meierhenrich’s incisive course reader, the crucial issue of genocide coverage receives its due attention and scrutiny.

No doubt one of the most hard-hitting and impactful pieces that is highlighted is Marvin Kalb‘s lecture, ‘The Journalism of the Holocaust’ (an adapted version of Kalb’s argument can be found here).

The focus of Kalb’s 1996 lecture is on a rather perplexing problem that has long concerned scholars of genocide: why did American journalists largely ignore the Holocaust? After all Kalb reminds us that: “[w]e knew enough, and we knew enough in timely fashion. Week after week, month after month, we read about the roundup of Jews, the wholesale deportations, the killings… How could such a story as the Holocaust not overwhelm the front page of every newspaper?”

Kalb offers five reasons why the Holocaust, despite its scale and sheer brutality, was neglected in the American media:

1. It distracted from Allied interests in ending the war. According to Kalb, “[T]he Allies were determined to win the war; they did not have their focus on saving Jews… [They] had settled, as firm policy, on the ‘unconditional surrender’ of the Nazis, and “no other thought,” even one as humanitarian as saving a people, was allowed to interfere with the prosecution of the war.”

NYT coverage of Kristallnacht

NYT coverage of Kristallnacht

2. It fit with widespread antisemitism. According to Kalb, “a xenophobic antisemitism flourished among many Americans.” He provides shocking statistics to support this observation:

[S]hortly after the outbreak of the war, 66 percent of the American people—two out of every three—described the German people as ‘essentially peace loving and kindly.’ Another poll said that 61 percent believed the German people should not be ‘blamed’ for the ‘mass killings’ of Jews. Fifty-eight percent said that ‘only’ the Nazi leaders should be ‘blamed.’ In January 1943, after Undersecretary Welles publicly confirmed the ‘final solution,’ after the Allies publicly released their joint statement of condemnation, another poll said that more than half of the American people did not believe that the Nazis were ‘deliberately’ killing the Jews.

3. People simply didn’t believe it was possible. Others simply didn’t want to believe that it was possible.

4. Journalists were overly cautious and adhered to US policy lines. As Kalb maintained, “American journalists, never an adventurous lot, performed, with very, very few exceptions, like obedient servants of the U.S. Government… Across the desks of the Associated Press and the United Press came stories from Europe about the systematic killing of Jews, but few were put on the news agency wires for mass distribution.

5. The New York Times. According to Kalb, The New York Times “simply did not cover the Holocaust… [D]uring the war The Times, which was and is so special to American journalism, knew much more than it printed about the Holocaust; and what it did print, it printed, as a rule, inside, cut, often trivialized.”

Skulls of victims on display at a Rwandan genocide memorial outside Kigali, Rwanda.  (Photo:  Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters)

Skulls of victims on display at a Rwandan genocide memorial outside Kigali, Rwanda. (Photo: Finbarr O’Reilly/Reuters)

These are remarkable – and rather devastating – conclusions. But they are also relevant to contemporary coverage and reporting of genocide. This may seem a curious claim to make. After all, many would argue that a central problem in current reporting on mass atrocities isn’t that it ignores or neglects the perpetration of genocidal violence but that it does reports on it too much and that, in pushing out thousands of articles, blog posts and tweets, genocide coverage obfuscates rather than elucidates the causes and drivers of genocide.

But the original sin of neglecting the Holocaust and the current trend that has seen unprecedented coverage of alleged genocides may very well be linked. In his lecture, Kalb concluded by remarking that there was an enduring sense of shame amongst journalists at the New York Times for having turned a blind eye to the Holocaust: “to this day the people who run (or have run) this great newspaper are baffled and embarrassed by this extraordinary omission.”

There are few psychological and institutional drivers more powerful than shame and guilt. And it can easily be imagined that a sense of shame and guilt amongst many reporters and journalists has driven them to report first and think later.

This comes at a significant cost. As a wealth of scholars have intimated, the first casualty of genocide reporting is often the truth. Context and nuance are supplanted by misleading narratives that are readily reproduced and recycled: ‘good’ versus ‘evil'; ‘African’ versus ‘Arab’; the heart of darkness, age-old ethnic hatreds, and so on.

Of course, there is no obvious or clear remedy for skewed reporting on mass violence. But the politics and political implications of genocide coverage certainly deserve more attention and, indeed, more coverage.

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About Mark Kersten

Mark researcher, consultant and teacher based in London. His research focuses on the nexus of international criminal justice and conflict resolution. Specifically, his work examines the politics of the International Criminal Court and the effects of its interventions.
This entry was posted in Funding, Genocide, Holocaust and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Awful Truth About Holocaust Reporting – And Its Legacy

  1. Anna says:

    While I don’t doubt that antisemitism flourished in the USA at the time, the actual quotation given in support of Point 2 seems to prove a misunderstanding of the complicity of many “ordinary” Germans, rather than the widespread nature of US anti-semitism per se.

    The framing of the quotation invites the inference that US citizens didn’t want to blame all Germans because they didn’t really think what they were doing was as worthy of condemnation as we would think, but that’s a bit of a leap, and the quotation could e.g. easily support Point 3 instead.

    Does the author provide better evidence of American xenophobic antisemitism as a causal factor?

  2. Mark Kersten says:

    Thanks very much for the comment, Anna.

    I think you’re right to question Kalb’s use of stats. That being said, he does offer other evidence (see the link above of a version of the lecture) some of which you may find more persuasive. It should be noted that it’s a lecture and not an academic article.

    That being said, I think the existence of a anti-Semitism in the US (and elsewhere in the ‘West’) prior to and during WWII is a largely established fact. And it’s hard to imagine that this would not affect coverage of the Holocaust – e.g. in the suspicion with which reports of the Holocaust from Jewish political and activist figures were received by American political figures; or in the ability for the government to neglect the Holocaust in favour of the singular goal of ending the war.

    • Anna says:

      Hi Mark,

      I realise that, on a second read, the first sentence of my first comment doesn’t quite read how I wanted it to! I don’t doubt US anti-semitism was widespread at the time; that’s why I found it a bit strange that such comparatively weak examples were used as evidence for it within an otherwise strong argument.

      As to the causal link, your explanation seems sound to me. I’ll make sure to look up the other examples in the lecture, too. Thanks for replying!

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