Media Bias – and a Book Review, Sort Of

city roomDo you suppose that “media bias” is a new thing in America? It’s a familiar topic nowadays, so familiar that it’s almost a throwaway line in what passes for political discourse. Whatever side you’re on, there’s “media bias” against your candidate. Right?

Now that that’s out of the way, let me retell a story on that topic. I just read it in “City Room,” a memoir by Arthur Gelb, the former managing editor of the New York Times.

I haven’t finished the book yet. There’s no need to, in order to make the point that I hope to make. But I will say it’s been an enjoyable and informative read thus far, especially for someone like me who is interested in history and who has seen his own byline in print.

I hope that Mr. Gelb’s story gives you, dear reader, a little more food for thought. Before I do, though, two items for digression and full disclosure.

I Bring My Own Biases to this Post

The Times: I once wrote for the New York Times. For seven years, I was a correspondent on the college hockey beat, usually filing short pieces for the Sunday paper. I loved the affiliation. I reveled in being “the gentleman from The Times.” Everybody returned my calls – pronto.

NYT-logoOnce I overdid the schtick when covering a national tournament in Detroit. I wore my best business suit with a bright red tie and matching handkerchief sticking out of my breast pocket. Reporters just don’t dress that way – but what the hell.

When my gig ended, the editor explained that staff reporters had been complaining that there were too many stories being assigned to stringers. One of those who didn’t complain, I’m sure, was the late William N. Wallace.

Bill took over all of the college hockey coverage and was sheepish and apologetic to me. I loved the man. He’d been a contact and mentor, and we stayed friends until his death. Bill had been a college baseball buddy (and drinking pal) of George H.W. “Pepper” Bush at Yale.

So I’m not totally objective about The New York Times – especially about what it used to be, the national paper of record. That was before the Internet changed everything.

The Holocaust: I’m not objective about the Holocaust either. How could anyone be? It was the largest and most methodical organized crime in history. I never had an inkling of it until reading Primo Levi in college. Almost everything I’ve learned about it, I’ve had to learn on my own. Even today, it is downplayed, short-shrifted, and still denied by some.

Arthur Gelb

Arthur Gelb

I’m one of those people who believes that we must continue to tell the story of the Holocaust and its survivors “unto the Tenth Generation,” as Deuteronomy warns. If we don’t, and if we don’t remember the larger lessons of history, then Winston Churchill’s immortal words may well come true. He said, as Britain took up the battle against Adolf Hitler,

“…if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age, made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.”

I don’t think that’s overstating it. If I’m biased on the subject of The Holocaust, so be it.

Burying and Bowdlerizing

Arthur Gelb began working as a copyboy at The Times during World War II. When Germany finally fell, and the stories of concentration camp atrocities began to trickle in, the paper all but ignored them. That was serious business.

If something was not in the national paper of record, either it didn’t happen, or it wasn’t important. Every newspaper in America emulated The New York Times.

Some excerpts from Chapter Six of Gelb’s book. They are worth quoting at some length:

Arthur Hays Sulzberger

Arthur Hays Sulzberger

On when the Russians liberated Majdanek and Auschwitz in 1944, Gelb writes, “while the Jews were predominant among the inmates, they weren’t singled out until the story jumped to an inside page.”

Notice this technique – “burying” the important details. Sound familiar? There’s more.

More from Gelb, on the coverage in April of 1945 when American soldiers liberated Buchenwald:

“…descriptions of barbarism trickled out day by day, one horrifying revelation following upon another. Many Americans began to feel that they had not been adequately informed over the years by their newspapers about the torture and slaughter of innocent people who, as it turned out, were mostly Jews.”

“Unfortunately, the country’s mainstream press generally followed the Times’ lead. To my dismay and that of many of my colleagues, the stories about the American liberation…were not displayed on the front page. And there was scarcely any attempt early on to put into perspective what was emerging as the genocidal epic of modern times.”

“Among the most egregious examples of news misjudgment by The Times was the story it ran on April 13 that American troops had freed the inmates at Buchenwald. The Times used only three brief paragraphs from the AP dispatch, which was placed at the bottom of page 11 among several other short items, including one headed ‘War Dog Honored Here.’”

Arthur Ochs "Punch" Sulzberger

Arthur Ochs “Punch” Sulzberger

“It was as though the top editors, in the beginning at least, simply could not bring themselves to entirely accept the reports filed by seasoned war correspondents. Since the stories tended to describe the liberated inmates as “victims” and “prisoners,” rarely as “Jews,” many of us in the city room simply couldn’t fathom what was on the minds of the editors.”

The editors finally began moving coverage to page one in response to readers’ outrage, but even then they fudged and obfuscated. Details about Buchenwald, such as gallows, torture rooms, and crematoria made it into a page one story – below the fold, so rendered less important – and none of the victims were identified as Jews until, far down in the story, it told of a nine-year-old boy who had survived a medical experiment.

One more distressing example. Again, Gelb’s words:

“What I found incomprehensible was…the hollow editorial, third in sequence on the page, with no mention of Jewish victims…Equally disturbing was the reserved manner in which the paper, two weeks later (April 26) handled its second account of Nazi extermination tactics at Buchenwald…The gruesome facts obviously belonged on page one, but they appeared instead under a constrained single-column headline on page six that read, “Buchenwald Worse Than Battlefield.”

“As the Twig is Bent…”

Adolph Ochs

Adolph Ochs

What the devil was going on here? The paper’s publisher was Arthur Hays Sulzberger. His father-in-law Adolph Ochs had been publisher before him.  Why did the paper under the second-generation Jew who was running it do such a shameful job with such an important story?

Gelb tells of his conversation with the third-generation publisher Arthur Ochs “Punch” Sulzberger, in 1993, shortly after the opening of the National Holocaust Museum.  In this telling – which sounds most plausible – Arthur Hays Sulzberger had been following the lead of his father-in-law who had been adamantly determined that The Times never be regarded as a  “Jewish paper.”  And why was that?

Well, Adolph Ochs had once suffered a nervous breakdown over the issue. He had always been wary of “calling attention to his ethnic origins” anyway, believing that it would undermine the paper’s image of objectivity as a source of news.

But there was one instance when he let The Times take a stand. In 1913, there was a murder trial in Atlanta that became a cause célèbre. The accused was a Jewish factory manager named Leo Frank. Frank was convicted and sentenced to death.

Ochs thought Frank had been railroaded, and he used The Times’s influence to advocate for an appeal. Georgia’s governor commuted the sentence to life imprisonment, and Frank was subsequently hanged by a lynch mob. According to Gelb,

“Ochs’s worst nightmare became reality. The Times was widely accused of taking up Frank’s cause because he was Jewish and because The Times, indeed, was a ‘Jewish paper.’ Clearly, Arthur Hays Sulzberger wanted no such reprise.”

Fear of “What They’ll Think”

So there you have it. I believe this account, and Gelb’s take on it.

One little incident, followed by one barrage of criticism many years in the past, turned the world’s greatest newspaper into a quaking, fearful rag.  The New York Times choked on one of the most important stories of all time, and all because one man couldn’t take the heat.

The consequences of Holocaust non-coverage were tragic then, and we’re still feeling them today.

Two takeaways:

  • History so often turns on seemingly insignificant happenings. What would have happened if the author of the Holocaust, Adolf Hitler, had not been twice rejected for admission to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna?

In the “whole vast configuration of things,” the Ochs position on the Atlanta murder trial was just one more sad little incident. What followed from that position was enormous.

  • Adolph Ochs didn’t have the courage of his convictions. Nor did his son-in-law. Or maybe they had no convictions. Or they had the wrong ones. Whatever, it was fear that drove them. Fear of being labeled. Fear of being accused of bias. Fear of doing something that was right – in this case, using the enormous power of the New York Times – to print “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”

Fear of being labeled. Fear of being accused of bias. Now does any of that sound familiar?

I suggest that we still feel, and see, and experience, the consequences of such fear today.

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