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.
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.”
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. Continue reading