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Jewish World Review April 5, 2001/ 12 Nissan, 5761

Suzanne Fields

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News that wasn't fit to print -- THE cherry blossoms are bursting into pink flame around the Tidal Basin, the Senate is busy chipping away at the First Amendment, and the nation's editors are in town this week for the annual convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

The editors are talking this year about newsroom leadership and protecting the credibility of their newspapers in particularly challenging times.

Marvin Kalb, executive director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard, hosts a forum on the "complexities'' of delivering the news, and on the other side of the Potomac the same Marvin Kalb is interviewed in a new documentary film at the Newseum, a museum of the news. Every editor in town ought to make a point to see it.

Credibility, the film makes clear, is the root, leaf, flower and fruit of the news business. Without it no news organization is worth the nickel that newspapers used to cost. "Holocaust: The Untold Story,'' produced for the History Channel and the Newseum, tells how America's newspapers, and particularly the New York Times, fumbled one of the biggest stories of the 20th century through bad judgment, poor leadership, lazy reporting, submission to government manipulation, capitulation to prejudice and general incompetence.

A.M. Rosenthal, who joined the New York Times as a cub reporter in 1943 and rose to become its executive editor three decades later, describes his paper's performance in covering the Holocaust: "It was no good. It was paltry. It was embarrassing. It was wrong. It was morally and journalistically wrong.''

On July 2, 1942, for example, the New York Times reported the murder of 700,000 Jews and the Nazis' travelling gas chambers in a brief dispatch on Page 6. A light-hearted account of Gov. Herbert Lehman donating his tennis shoes to the war effort was placed in a prominent spot at the top of page one that day.

When the U.S. government confirmed a report in 1942 that Hitler had put into place the plan to kill all the Jews, the New York Times ran the story on Page 10. In 1944, when 40,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to the concentration camps and an additional 350,000 were scheduled to be exterminated over the following three weeks, the revelation, based on "authoritative information,'' was limited to four-column inches tucked between department-store ads on page 12. Space on page one that day was devoted to a lengthy account of the crowds celebrating freedom and independence across America.

Laurel Leff, a professor of journalism at Northeastern University, studied every edition of the New York Times from 1939 to 1945. She counted more than 1,100 stories relating to the Holocaust, but only six page one stories about the slaughter of the Jews. The news was there for someone with the patience to search it out, but it was an impossible task to piece together a coherent account of what was going on in Europe. Innuendo and verbal ambiguity undercut the impact of the evil.

The New York Times' responsibility was unique, because it was, and still is, the single most influential newspaper in America. Newspaper editors look to the New York Times -- "all the news that's fit to print'' -- to see what's important and what's not.

Arthur Sulzberger, the publisher of the New York Times and a Jew, was determined that his newspaper would not be identified as a Jewish paper and "leaned over backwards'' to make sure it wasn't. "The Times,'' says Abe Rosenthal, "was regarded as a newspaper owned by Jews edited by Catholics for Protestants.''

In leaning over backwards, the newspaper occasionally fell over. But it wasn't just the New York Times. "The press at the time was very lame, very patriotic, very much attuned to the principal objectives of the administration,'' says Marvin Kalb. "There is no doubt in my mind that lives could have been saved if the press had focused on this story.''

Abe Rosenthal agrees. "If the Times had come out big on this, that would have brought a lot more attention in the country. However, I don't think that absolves the editors of those other newspapers.''

Accounts of the Holocaust, which had no such name then, were similarly all but invisible in the New York Herald-Tribune, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Times-Herald and the Evening Star (the capital's leading newspapers of the era) and The Washington Post. Abe Rosenthal thinks this wouldn't happen today: "We would investigate the hell out of it.''

Nevertheless, the documentary gives pause for reflection on how easy it is to get it wrong -- or not get it at all. This is a caution particularly needed today when corporate journalism often encourages the bland to lead the bland. Such lapses and mistakes are rarely the stuff of life and death, but nevertheless go to the heart of a newspaper's credibility. We must make sure we're listening.


04/02/01: The devil in the legal details
03/29/01: Making marriage glamorous
03/27/01: Crime and punishment on the small screen
03/23/01: When speech isn't free
03/19/01: Russell Crowe doesn't wear a Black Beret
03/15/01: 'The little intimidator' of the breakfast table
03/13/01: "We are asking the Creator for clemency"
03/08/01: Saving El Salvador with dollars and sense
02/27/01: The last cowboys of their craft
02/23/01: When Bubba graduates to Bobo
02/16/01: Clarence Thomas addresses an imperfect world
02/12/01: Ariel Sharon, not by Steven Spielberg
02/07/01: Profaning the sacred with the political
02/05/01: What's the Creator got to do with it?
02/01/01: Live like the snopses, leave like the snopses
01/29/01: It's education, stupid
01/25/01: "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows"
01/22/01: Poetry and religion in the Bush administration
01/18/01: Ashcroft can't dance (don't ask him)
01/15/01: Clothes make the First Lady
01/11/01: Pity Jerusalem in the 'peace' process
01/08/01: Laying the political race card
01/04/01: 'What women want' in the new millennium
01/02/01: This year, looking ahead is sure sweeter than looking back
12/21/00: Black power with a Republican face
12/21/00: First impressions of two First Ladies
12/18/00: Challenge for the 'better angels of our nature'
12/14/00: What we've lost sight of
12/13/00: Hillary in the lion's den
12/08/00: Return of the 'second sex' on campus
12/04/00: Politics as entertainment today
11/30/00: Winner vs. whiner
11/27/00: Measuring against history
11/23/00: Memories of Thanksgiving past
11/17/00: In defense of the Electoral College
11/16/00: More than one way to win an election
11/13/00: Sexual politics squared
11/09/00: A Middle East legacy
11/06/00: Filling in the dots at campaign's end
11/02/00: His own man in full
10/30/00: The Oval Office, through a glass brightly
10/23/00: There'll always be an England. Maybe.
10/19/00: The celebrity candidate
10/16/00: 'Ladies night' at the second debate
10/12/00: Gore vs. Bush: Volvo vs. Maserati
10/10/00: We weep for Rami for he is dead
10/05/00: Looking at Lieberman from inside the 'ghetto'
10/02/00: Campaigns, candidates, and kissy-face
09/28/00: Laughing and crying over Joe Lieberman
09/21/00: Targeting teenagers for money
09/21/00: Sexual politics in New York
09/18/00: Surviving the stereotypes and debates
09/14/00: Gloria Steinem runs cheerfully into captivity
09/12/00: Sex in the eye of the partisan
09/07/00: 'Sex and death' on the college campus
09/05/00: Joe Lieberman as a 'Menorah Man'
08/31/00: Rising suns of the conventions
08/17/00: Changing icons: From Loretta Young to Hillary Clinton
08/14/00: The Creator returns to the public square
08/10/00: Bursting with pride, but caution too
08/07/00: Brains, beauty and beastly politics
08/03/00: A candidate with a superego
07/31/00: The sizzling Lynne Cheney
07/27/00: The party of the aging Playboys
07/24/00 Hillary drives the Jewish wagon into a ditch
07/20/00 Conservatives gone fishin'
07/17/00: Snoop Doggy Dogg was a founding father, wasn't he?
07/13/00: When a teenager doesn't need a prime minister
07/10/00: Abortion as cruel and unusual punishment
07/06/00: Surviving 'survivor' TV
07/03/00: Independence Day with Norman Rockwell
06/29/00: Here comes 'something old'
06/26/00: Waiting too long for the baby
06/22/00: Good teachers, curious students and oxymorons
06/19/00: Wanted: Some ants for Gore's pants
06/15/00: Like father, like daughter
06/12/00: Culture wars and conservative warriors
06/08/00: Return of the housewife
06/05/00: Hillary and Al -- playing against type
05/31/00: The sexual revolution confronts the SUV
05/25/00: Waiting for the movie
05/22/00: Pistol packin' mamas
05/18/00: Journalists and the 'new time' religion
05/15/00: There's nothing like a (military) dame
05/11/00: 'The Human Stain' on campus
05/09/00: We've come a long way, Betty Friedan
05/04/00: From George Washington to Mansa Masu
05/01/00: Gore's ruthless doublespeak
04/28/00: Doing it Castro's way
04/24/00: Women's studies beget narrow minds
04/17/00: The slippery slope of anti-Semitism
04/13/00: A villain larger than life
04/10/00: When mourning becomes an economic tragedy
04/03/00: The last permissible bigotry
03/30/00: Seeking the political Oscar
03/23/00: The gaying of America
03/20/00: Pointy-eared quadrupeds on campus
03/16/00: The shocking art of the establishment
03/13/00: Sawdust on the campaign trail
03/10/00: Campaign rhetoric of manhood
03/06/00: The Amphetamine of the People
03/02/00: Elegy for Amadou
02/29/00: With only a million, what's a poor girl to do?
02/24/00: The changing politics of change
02/16/00: Tip from Hillary: 'Let 'em eat eggs'
02/10/00: No seances with Eleanor
02/07/00: Campaigning like our founding fathers
02/03/00: When neo-Nazis have short memories
01/31/00: George W. -- 'Ladies man' and 'man's man'
01/27/00: Dead white males and live white politicians
01/25/00: Smarting over presidential smarts
01/21/00: A post-modern song for `The Sopranos'
01/19/00: When personality is a long-distance plus
01/13/00: French lessons in amour --- and marriage
01/10/00: Reaching for the Big Golden Apple
01/07/00: Liddy Dole as the face of feminism
01/04/00: Hillary: From victim to victor
12/30/99: 'Dream catchers' for the millennium
12/27/99: In search of a candidate with strength and eloquence
12/21/99: The president as First Lady
12/16/99: Columbine with blurred hindsight
12/09/99: Homeless deserve discriminating attention
12/07/99: Casual censors and deadly know-nothings
12/02/99: Why mom didn't make general: A reality tale
11/30/99: Potholes on the road to the Promised Land
11/25/99: A feast for the spirit and the stomach
11/23/99: Fathers need to say 'I (can) do'
11/18/99: Adventures of a conservative pundit
11/15/99: Traveling with Jefferson on the information highway
11/11/99: Wanted: 'Foliage of forbiddinness' for the oval office
11/09/99: Eggs, art and rotten commerce
11/05/99: Al Gore, 'Alpha Male'. Bow wow.
11/01/99: Gay love
10/28/99: Lose one Dole, lose two
10/26/99: Rebels with a violent cause
10/21/99: Reforming parents, reforming schools
10/19/99: The male mystique -- he shops
10/13/99:The campaign of the Teletubbies
10/08/99: Money is in the eye of the art dealer
10/01/99: Lincoln's 'Almost Chosen People'
09/29/99: Introducing Bill and Hillary Bickerson
09/27/99: Must we wait for the next massacre?
09/24/99: Miss America meets Miss'd America
09/21/99: Princeton's 'professor death'
09/16/99: The Cisneros lesson
09/13/99: No clemency for personal politics
09/08/99: M-M-M is for manhood
08/30/99: Blocking the schoolhouse door
08/27/99: No kick from cocaine
08/23/99: Movies don't kill people
08/19/99: A rude awakening
08/16/99: Dubyah and that 'language' thing
08/09/99: Chauvinist sows -- oink oink

©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate