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.
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.”
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.