The bearer of bad news
Journalists are known as the bearer of bad news. There is a cliche in journalism: you don't report when the plane lands — you report when it doesn't.
The news media covers major events, few of which are positive. In times of crisis, the public turns to journalists to understand the grim reality of the world around them (Kitch, 2008, pg. 312).
Photo: First Lady Jackie Kennedy stands with Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson as he is sworn in as president of the United States after the assassination of President John Kennedy. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
In turning to the news when tragedy strikes, news coverage brings the world together; thus, journalism builds a collective first memory of any major event.
In Cultural Chaos: Journalism and Power in a Globalized World, Brian McNair writes about his experience watching the events unfold on 9/11:
"Along with the hundreds of millions of people by now following CNN and other broadcasters I witnessed the second strike as it happened a few moments later, and stayed with CNN throughout a night of journalistic confusion, panic and disbelief. As the realization of what had happened grew and the towers fell, from that remote outpost in tropical Queensland I joined a global audience of spectators to an act of mass murder which would shape the course of world events for the foreseeable future, and which happened in real time, before the eyes of everyone on the planet with access to a television" (2006, pg. 2).
Photo: Hijacked planes crash into the World Trade Centre in New York City on Sept. 9, 2001. These tragic images were broadcast all over the world. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Similarly, memory studies is often seen as grim. According to Kitch, “The serious and political nature of memory studies lies partly in the field’s close relationship to Holocaust studies” (2008, pg. 312).
Aleida Assman writes that memory studies, much like journalism, can help an oppressed group and/or the rest of the world collectively understand and work through trauma (2010, pg. 8).
Photo: Soldiers and journalists bear witness to the atrocities of the Holocaust at the end of the war in 1945. (Source: Nazi Atrocities newsreel, Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
Case Study: Reporting on the Holocaust
Photo: Taken at the Dachau concentration camp. (Source: Paul Averitt, Wikimedia Commons)
“And yet, the last 1940s and 1950s are often characterized as a period of ‘omission’ and ‘avoidance’ of the holocaust.” — Jeffrey Shandler, While America Watches
After the war, the Jewish population of Europe had two minds: some wanted to memorialize the victims so as never to forget what happened, and others wanted to move forward and carve out a new future (Assman, 2010, pg. 8). Each represents a model of dealing with trauma: dialogic forgetting, and remembering in order to prevent forgetting. Dialogic forgetting involves both the consent of the perpetrator and the victim (Assman, 2010, pg. 10).
But did the Jewish population really have the choice to remember? Or was silence forced upon them by the bystanders to the atrocities committed against them, namely the press?
Did the news media contribute to the silence after the Holocaust with its reporting on the genocide?
Competitive memory in journalism
Journalism has a problem when it comes to its place in history and memory studies — it has a huge impact on memory as its formed, but newspapers and newscasts only have so much time or space to report the news. This is how journalism falls into the trap of competitive memory.
Michael Rothsberg is critical of competitive memory in his book Multidirectional Memory: Remember the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization. In this book, he asks many questions about competitive memory. The answers to these questions prove that competitive memory is prevalent in journalism.
“What happens when different histories confront each other in the public sphere?” (2009, pg. 26).
The first place different histories confront each other is in the newsroom. Reporters and editors use "news judgment" to discuss stories and to decide which stories are written and which are "spiked" (thrown out). The newsroom will also decide which stories will go on which page. This process is inherently competitive. Here, journalists decide which parts of history are presented first, and more prominently, to the public, which has a huge cultural and historical impact on collective memory.
“Does collective memory really work like real estate development?” (2009, pg. 27).
The front page of the newspaper is prime real estate. The story featured there is most likely read not only by subscribers, but also by people passing by news stands on the street, or perusing through the paper while waiting in line to purchase something else. This gives a level of importance to the lead story, and less attention and importance is given to the stories buried inside.
“Fundamental to the conception of competitive memory is a notion of the public sphere as a pre-given, limited space” (2009, pg. 33).
In newspapers and in newscasts, there is limited space and time, meaning that only certain stories will be told. Again, this means that journalism creates an inherent competitiveness between stories, and thus between the first point of collective memory.
Another example: Spotlight at The Boston Globe
In 2001, an investigative news team called Spotlight at The Boston Globe began investigating allegations of sexual abuse in the highest levels of the American Catholic church. Just as the story was due to be published, the attacks on 9/11 occurred, and the abuse scandal was bumped for months and published in 2002. In its place, stories about 9/11 and its aftermath were featured on the front page the day after, and in the weeks and months following (Chang, 2015).
The ethics of this decision has been debated among journalists. On the one hand, the victims of abuse did not have their story told to the public for months, and were asked to be quiet while Spotlight sat on the story. But on the other hand, when the story did finally run, it was printed on the front page of the paper, and didn't have to compete with the trauma of 9/11 for coverage (Chang, 2015).
Here, the competition between the two traumas is clear.
Photo: The front page story that ran instead of the sexual abuse scandal. (Source: Boston Globe archive)
Competitive memory: The New York Times and the Holocaust
“Even at the height of the Nazi campaign, the United States and the world press remained at best indifferent to the ongoing atrocities committed against Jews, and at worst acted as propaganda machines for the perpetrators. Many reporters and editors, willingly or not, became silent participants in this crime.” — Ilgin Yorulmaz, FASPE fellow
Photo: The New York Times has been criticized for burying stories about the Holocaust in its paper, with very few making the front page during the war. (Source: Reporting on the Times, Aeon Video)
This photo illustrates one of many examples of The New York Times burying a story about the extermination of Jewish people. (Source: Reporting on the Times, Aeon Video)
On June 29, 1942, a story about the extermination of 600,000 Jewish people in a Warsaw ghetto by the Nazis ran on page 7. It was not even an article on its own, as it was tacked on to the end of another story about the war (Harrold, 2013). The headline was small, and the story was brief.
On the same page, with a much larger headline, a standalone article on the execution of 28 miners in France ran on the same page with a much more prominent and clear headline. Unlike the Warsaw ghetto story, the miner death story has the number of deaths in the title. And while significantly fewer people died, the story is displayed in a way to gain more traction with readers.
The language used is also indicative of the level of importance of the miners deaths over the Jewish population in Warsaw. "Executed" is a dramatic word that conjures the image of a person being killed in a brutal way. "Extermination" is a word we use most often when we kill animals or vermin, not humans. The language here denotes that some lives are more valuable than others, and this is reinforced both by the placement of the article and the size of the headline.
This is another archive from The New York Times.
It depicts an article about the restriction of Warsaw Jewish people to a ghetto. Again, placement denotes importance. This story was on the inside of the first section of the paper, located next to an ad for photos of a man's "sweetheart," which many soldiers did before they went to war overseas.
The story includes no comment from any Jewish leaders, and only includes comments from the government's communique, which claimed that "the Jews were making profits from the need of the Polish population; furthermore, they were dangerous carriers of sickness and pestilence." There are no Jewish voices to rebuke that claim.
While the story seems like a longer column, after the lede and one nut graph the article shifts gears. The story then becomes about the "liquidation" of monopoly industries between different foreign interests.
(Source: Reporting on the Times, Aeon Video).
Here, the word "liquidated" appears again, but this time it does not apply to assets. Here, a word usually used to describe assets or industries is applied to a group of hundreds of thousands of human lives.
The story also tries to make a link between the execution of the remaining Jewish people in the ghetto to the uprising of some Jewish people to kill 60 Nazis. But this is not an "eye for an eye" situation. When one reads between the lines in this article, it becomes clear that 450,000 Jewish people were killed or sent to concentration camps to be killed before the Jewish people in the ghetto killed 60 Nazis retributively. And then, in response to the uprising, the Nazis "liquidated," ie. murdered, another 40,000 Jewish people.
The fact that 450,000 Jewish people were killed or sent to t heir deaths is not explicitly stated in the article. Instead, the writer just says that the ghetto used to house 450,000, but that only 40,000 remained when the Germans massacred the remaining Jewish people in the ghetto.
(Source: Reporting on the Times, Aeon Video)
In this instance, yet another story about the Warsaw ghetto is buried inside the paper, and is featured next to an advert for children's gloves. The size of the advert in comparison to the size of the article is noteworthy.
Another problem with much of the coverage of the Holocaust was the fact that the Jewish people were referred to as "Jews." This is a problem that still permeates current discourse. While calling someone a Jew is not inherently offensive (generally speaking, it is considered offensive when it is when used as a verb or adjective, but not as a proper noun), in the reporting on the Holocaust it would have been helpful to remind readers that Jews are in fact people, especially when the word "Jew" is being coupled with words like "extermination." Like Innis said, the medium is the message, and if the medium is the printed word, it is important for journalists to pick their words carefully and responsibly.
(Source: Reporting on the Times, Aeon Video)
News judgment and its contribution to competitive memory
So, what goes in to a journalist's or editor's decision to cover a story or to spike it? What goes into the decision as to where the story will be placed in the newspaper? How do they decide which stories are more important than others, especially when they are covering many different traumas occurring to many different types of people at any given time? In short, why did stories about the Holocaust get buried?
The newsroom uses "news judgment" to make these calls, and news judgment has many different aspects that editors take into consideration when making these decisions.
Where the news is happening is one of the main factors in whether or not a story is covered, or to what extent it is given importance. The closer the story is to the reader, the more prominently it is featured. The Holocaust was happening to people far away in ways that did not directly impact the day-to-day lives of the Western world.
Relationship to the reader:
A large number of the stories featured on the front page of The New York Times between 1939 and 1945 were about the conflict, which is likely because of the interest in the American soldiers (Harrold, 2013). The Times' readers probably had fathers, husbands, brothers and sons fighting in the war, and readers wanted to know what was happening to them. Stories about their own soldiers contributed to American's memory of their own losses and trauma, and solidified their identity as heroes in the war and as army families serving their country patriotically.
Reporters and editors alike are ultimately beholden to the publisher, who can dictate the kinds of stories that are reported on. As the owners of the publication, what they say goes.
At the time of World War II and the Holocaust, The New York Times was owned by Arthur Hays Sulzberger, a prominent Reform Jewish man. Laurel Leff, a journalist and author of Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America's Most Important Newspaper, argues that Sulzberger was largely responsible for The Times burying the story of the Holocaust (Harrold, 2013). She writes that Sulzberger's views on Judaism, as well as society's anti-Semitic tendencies at large, were key factors in the burying of the genocide (Harold, 2013). These factors indicate a culture that wanted to stay silent on the genocide of Europe's Jewish population.
The impact of culture on the news
While the news is a driver of cultural development, it is also in turn impacted by culture. By looking at the culture that influences this cycle, there is much to learn about journalism and memory.
At the time of the Holocaust, much of the U.S. was anti-Semitic. According to Frederic Cople Jaher, author of The Jews and the Nation: Revolution, Emancipation, State Formation, and the Liberal Paradigm in America and France, a 1938 survey found that 60% of those polled thought that Jewish people were "greedy," "dishonest," and "pushy" (2002, pg. 230).
One man known widely for his anti-Semitic views was Father Charles Coughlin, a preacher from Detroit who was heard by over 3 million people regularly, and by 15 million people at least once (Jaher, 2002, pg. 230). He was known for his extremely anti-Semitic views, once saying, "When we get through with the Jews in America, they'll think the treatment they received in Germany was nothing" (Harrold, 2013).
The Times, as a publication owned by a prominent Jewish man, had to deal with the cultural impact of anti-Semitism. According to Alex Jones, a former New York Times reporter, "The Times was paranoid, with justification, about being marginalized as an institution because of its Jewish ownership" (Harrold, 2013).
While Sulzberger never denied that he was Jewish, he identified as Reform. He wrote that he did not believe that Judaism was a race, but simply a religion. He was also against the formation of an independent Jewish state (Harrold, 2013).
Leff argues that Sulzberger did not want his newspaper to appear overly sympathetic to the Jewish population of Europe because of his personal beliefs and because of the potential impact of anti-Semitism on his paper (Harrold, 2013). This, she says, is why the Times buried and underreported the Holocaust. Similarly, Jones said, "It was a matter of news judgment, and The New York Times blew it" (Harrold, 2013).
The anti-Semitic culture of the U.S. at the time of the Second World War likely played a role in its reporting on the Holocaust, which in turn made the Times report in a way that reinforced the culture it reported on instead of challenging it. In this way, journalism was a medium that exists a cultural form, impacts culture, and is influenced by culture.
Ultimately, The New York Times recognized its role in irresponsibly covering the Holocaust, and issued a statement of apology in 1996 (Harrold, 2013).
BBC Radio in Britain and Europe
The BBC had radio transmissions in both the U.K. and in mainland Europe. While its mainland broadcasts featured more stories about the Holocaust than much of the Western media at the time, its British broadcasts mirrored the coverage of The New York Times (Johnson and Reuband, 2005, pg. 381-3).
Journalism as a political actor: Would reporting on the Holocaust have changed the outcome?
Ultimately, probably not. The rise of anti-Semitism, nationalism, and fascism in Europe were powerful forces in creating the condition for the genocide of the Jewish population, all of which would not have been stopped by a critical press.
But would pressure from the press have forced intervention sooner? It’s hard to say. President Franklin D. Roosevelt apparently read The New York Times pretty carefully every day to see what mattered to the public (Harrold, 2013). But the U.S. didn’t intervene until after Pearl Harbor (until after it was attacked) anyway.
But it mattered to the victims of the Holocaust, who felt abandoned and forgotten by the world. Estelle Laughlin, a Jewish Warsaw resident, said, "We had to wear armbands with the Star of David, and I remember when my mother first put the armband on me, she said, 'Wait until the world will hear about this.' [...] My only hope was the free world. How could such horror not be questioned? How could they have closed their ears, like the monkey who hears nothing, sees nothing, says nothing? It's incomprehensible to me" (Harrold, 2013).
They thought someone was coming to help them, and the Western world wasn't. This was partially because of the media's irresponsible coverage (or lack thereof). Western readers did not know, or did not care.
This proves that while journalism does not always have the political agency to change the course of history, it does mean that it can have the cultural agency to change the course of memory.
After the war
Immediately following the war, there was a brief shift in the news media's coverage of the Holocaust. After victory was claimed, Allied troops were able to enter the concentration camps, and saw first-hand the trauma that occurred there. Soldiers, journalists, and civilians were able to enter the camp, in order to "bear witness" to the tragedy that occurred there ("Nazi atrocities" newsreel, US Army Signal Corps, USHMM).
Journalists, upon being able to enter the camps, were able to take dramatic and horrifying images that finally gained traction in the news media. The images humanized the genocide of Europe's Jewish population. The information was no longer coming in short bursts on the wire from Europe's authorities. The images showed the victim's faces, and showed the grim reality of a genocide ignored. A picture is worth a thousand words, and the work of photojournalists such as Margaret Bourke-White, spoke volumes and sold papers.
Newsreels of the camps, produced by Universal Newsreels and the US Army Signal Corps, came out in the days and weeks after the war ended. These newsreels were shown at the beginning of movies at theatres across the Western world ("Nazi atrocities" newsreel, US Army Signal Corps, USHMM).