There is one fundamental way in which journalism changed after Auschwitz: Before the Holocaust we did not have a category for genocide, and after it we did--and do. In taking account of the transformation, I did not directly address the title of the plenary, "Professional Ethics after Auschwitz." This is because the title implies two things to me: first, that a profession has established norms, and, second, that the profession changed its norms, whether consciously or not, in response to the extermination of 6,000,000 Jews. That did not happen in journalism.
I should say one quick thing about professional ethics in journalism--we do not have any, at least not in the same sense as medicine or law where quasi- official bodies determine proper behavior for state-licensed professionals. Individual news organizations have guidelines, such as the New York Times Co.'s "Policy on Ethics in Journalism," the Washington Post's "Standards and Ethics" section of its stylebook, and National Public Radio's "Ethics Code." Professional organizations, such as the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Society of Newspaper Editors, issue statements of principles--and occasionally assign task forces to reconsider them--but all the codes and guidelines and principles are ad hoc and unenforceable. Therefore, I would say that journalism has more of an ethos than a set of common ethical guidelines.
That said, let me tell you about the journalism ethos after Auschwitz, as I understand it. I started my professional journalism career in 1978 just as the Holocaust was penetrating the consciousness of the United States. I cannot recall anything, either explicitly or implicitly, that was a part of my inculcation into the profession that related to the extermination of European Jewry. It was simply not a part of journalists' discourse. There is a straightforward explanation for that void. In the decades after World War II, journalists, like much of the U.S. population, assumed that the press did not cover the extermination of the Jews because the press could not cover the extermination of the Jews. The Holocaust was a deep, dark secret that the German government hid from the Western world. There was no reason to ponder the profession's response to an event to which it could not have responded.
With the publication of David Wyman's The Abandonment of the Jews in 1984 and Deborah Lipstadt's Beyond Belief in 1986, (1) it became clear that the idea that the Holocaust was unknown and unknowable to U.S. citizens was false. U.S. news organizations could and did publish a great deal about the Holocaust while it was happening. As my book, Buried by The Times, (2) documents, The New York Times published 1,186 stories about what was happening to the Jews of Europe, from the start of the war in Europe in September, 1939, to its end nearly six years later in May, 1945. That means that during the war a news story appeared every other day in the Times on the events we now know as the Holocaust. Because almost all those stories appeared deep inside the newspaper, however, the myth of U.S. ignorance emerged and persisted.
Even now, more than two decades after the myth's debunking, the realization that the U.S. press could and did cover the Holocaust at the time has not penetrated the journalism community. Leo Bogart, a sociologist and mass marketing guru, recalled attending a presentation on the press treatment of the Holocaust at a journalism educators' conference, probably in the early 1990's. When the presenter asked, "Who could have known these events were taking place?" Bogart raised his hand. "[H]aving lived through those years, I knew perfectly well that those obscure items, one inch high in the middle pages of The New York Times, were being devoured, discussed, and fed into the mainstream of conversation and thought of people concerned with the subject." But, Bogart said, he was ignored, and the speaker "went ahead blithely pursuing his thesis that, of course, nobody could possibly have known about what was happening." (3)
I do not think it is much different today. I do not have hard data to back it up, but my guess is that, if you asked U.S. journalists whether newspapers at the time published anything beyond rumors about what was happening to European Jews, most would say "no." (Interestingly, that is not because journalists think the Holocaust itself was unimportant. Journalists surveyed at the turn of the millennium ranked the Holocaust as one of the twentieth century's ten most important news stories.) Certainly, the notion that Holocaust coverage was a major journalistic failure has not taken hold. A quick survey of journalism textbooks, both introductory texts and specialized ethics ones, reveals that the Holocaust is mentioned in terms of ethical concerns arising around Holocaust films, such as Life Is Beautiful or Schindler's List, or around Holocaust denial, but only one text discusses, and then in only a paragraph, the responsibility of the U.S. press to inform its public about the mass murder of the Jews.
Given this history and this contemporary understanding, it is not at all surprising that journalism has not altered its ethics in response to an event it believed happened outside its purview. Part of the reason the profession developed and maintained this belief is that journalists at the time lacked a category for what they were covering. They had no way of grouping together seemingly disparate events into an overarching news story. The term "genocide" did not exist prior to 1942; the word to describe state-sponsored mass murder of a group emerged after the war as a response to the events of the war. That made it harder to see what was happening during the war.
Here are two examples of the power of categorization. From its inception, the Roosevelt Administration tracked news stories and editorials in 400 daily newspapers and issued weekly Press Intelligence Bulletins that summarized their contents. The bulletins did not have a subject category for the murder of Jews or even the persecution of Jews. As a result, the many stories about the ongoing destruction of European Jewry found in the nation's newspapers did not appear under one heading. Instead, they were scattered under several categories and mixed in with completely unrelated stories. On June 3, 1942, for example, forty articles appeared under the heading "Axis occupied territory," including "Japan to open tunnel in southern Japan," "3 tell of food situation in Germany," and "Atrocities against Jews Reported in Romania." On June 20, 1942, the bulletin indexed an article about the slaying of 60,000 Jews in Vilna, along with summaries of eleven other stories, including "Norwegians Compelled to Scrub Streets" and "Dutch Are Disowning Traitors in Own Families." Had there been a category, all the news stories about European Jews would have been listed in a single place, but there was none, and so they were not--making it more difficult for policy-makers to perceive the emerging pattern of widespread, systematic extermination.
A similar categorical blindness marked The New York Times' coverage. From Hitler's ascent to power in 1933 through the war's end, the newspaper never assigned a reporter to cover the persecution of the Jews. Instead, different reporters in different bureaus at different times handled the news. When the Polish government in exile issued a statement in London, a London bureau reporter covered it. When the Soviet foreign minister announced the discovery of mass graves in the Ukraine, the Times' Moscow bureau chief wrote the story. When the Hungarian government began shipping its citizens to Auschwitz, a Jerusalem reporter, temporarily assigned to Ankara, chronicled the deportations. No one had the responsibility or felt the obligation to explain the connections between what appeared as and appeared to be isolated stories.
I do not want to overstate this point. The Roosevelt Administration received reports from the field describing the systematic extermination campaign. Such organizations as the World Jewish Congress and some exile governments put together accounts from throughout occupied Europe that recognized the German government's war on the Jews. Plenty of newspaper stories described the mounting murders of Jews for being Jews. I also believe that the U.S. government's desire to keep news of the Jews' annihilation under the radar and the press's unwillingness to unearth it were more powerful than any categorical blinders. Still, the lack of any neat, pre-existing ways of thinking about what was happening to Europe's Jews made it easier to submerge the news.
That submergence continued to the war's end and into its immediate aftermath. In considering journalism's unresponsiveness to the ethical implications of Auschwitz, this period is the most crucial. The year 1945 should have been the time when the press said, "Oh my God, how could we have missed this?" or, more accurately, "How is it possible that we had the story and buried it?" But, that did not happen. We now think of the liberation of the concentration camps in April and May of 1945, and particularly the horrifying photographs that chronicled the liberation, as the moment when the world became aware of the Holocaust. It was not. As I documented in Buried by The Times and in a J.E.S. article that examined two additional newspapers, (4) the contemporaneous coverage was not about the realization that Germany had murdered 6,000,000 Jews in a systematic campaign to eradicate them from the face of the earth. Very few news stories on the camps' liberation even mentioned Jews, let alone connected the dead and the dying in the camps to what we now refer to as the Holocaust. Instead, the press coverage described atrocities the Germans had committed against all the peoples of Europe. The victims were identified as citizens of various nations or as political or military opponents of the Nazi regime, not as Jews. So, the world learned that the Germans had committed atrocities on a scale and of a kind beyond human understanding, but not that Jews were the primary victims of the slaughter. The Nuremberg trial of twenty-two top German officials, which began in November, 1945, did not alter that picture. The extermination of the Jews received little attention from the Nuremberg prosecutors and even less from the press. (5)
It took decades for the Holocaust to emerge as an event worthy of attention in the U.S. Here is one indication. A perusal of the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, the standard index of major U.S. publications, shows that the Holocaust was first mentioned as a category in the March, 1976-February, 1977, volume under "Holocaust, literature," followed three years later by "Holocaust (Jewish) see World War (1939-1945) Jews." "Holocaust" does not emerge as a stand-alone category with its own entries (29) until the March, 1981-February, 1982, volume. It was not simply a terminology problem. Before 1981, anyone seeking articles about the extermination of the Jews needed to look in the massive "World War (1939-1945)" listing (that could run to fifty-two pages) and find the subhead, "Jews." Duplicating the Press Intelligence Bulletin's categorization and its attendant problems, there were also stories under individual country headings, such as "Jews in Poland," or "Jews in Hungary." So, again, the information existed and could be found, but only with great difficulty.
By the time the Holocaust stood alone as an event and a category, two decades after the fact, it was easier for the press to be hazy about what it knew about the extermination of the Jews and when it knew it. This is not to say that important journalistic ethical issues have not arisen out of Auschwitz; they have. Indeed, both how and why the press covered the extermination campaign as it did raises critical questions, as does the profession's failure to acknowledge its role. But, to this day, those questions are not a part of the professional conversation. Journalists have never grappled with their Holocaust role in a way that would lead them consciously to reshape or even reconsider their professional ethics.
For reasons largely unrelated to journalism, however, the category of genocide emerged from the ashes of the concentration camps, both as part of everyday language and as a violation of international law. The existence of genocide as a category has transformed journalism standards. Most important, the press now covers mass murder in Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, and other places through the lens of a state-sponsored campaign to kill people because of their racial, religious, or ethnic identity. (Ironically, the legal import of the term "genocide" often makes governments, and thus the press, reluctant to use it, even as they cover the phenomenon.) This understanding has led the U.S. press to pay more attention to mass murder in faraway places. There is no question that more, and more prominent, contemporaneous news stories have been written about the genocides that came after the Holocaust than about the Holocaust itself. The closer the event is to the paradigm of the Holocaust, the more likely it is to get the press's attention. The genocide in Bosnia attracted more coverage partly because the victims were white Europeans but also because its iconography most resembled that of the Holocaust and, thus, the way in which genocide had come to be understood. The lasting images to emerge from the Balkan nightmare- emaciated men behind barbed wire--echo the photos from liberated Buchenwald and Dachau forty years before.
After Auschwitz, journalists are not only more likely to cover genocide prominently; they are also more likely to cover it effectively. One of the striking things absent from the U.S. press's contemporaneous Holocaust coverage, even after liberation, is what we would now call the survivor story. In 1945, not a single story appeared in any of the newspapers I looked at that followed someone from her or his pre-war life through tribulations in ghettos or labor camps to extermination centers, death marches, and finally a displaced persons camp in Germany. As in previous press coverage, the problem was not a lack of information. Indeed, journalists could have interviewed the hundreds of thousands of Jewish survivors sitting in American-administered camps about their experiences, but they did not. Two journalistic conventions--a preference for official sources and official stories, and a preference for stories related to the U.S.--deflected attention from the survivors.
As a result, throughout the war and even after, Holocaust victims were numbers, not people, which made it harder for a U.S. audience to relate to their suffering. Over the subsequent six decades, journalism has realized the power of the story of a single person caught up in world-shattering events. The individual survivor story is now almost mandatory in news stories about genocide. Many journalists make noble efforts, often at great risk to themselves, to tell these stories. I do not want to claim this is a change because of Auschwitz; it is not. It is a change in journalism that was imported to coverage of genocide, but one that lends it greater poignancy and power. Similarly, since 1945, journalism has realized the power of visual images, including those of genocide. Technological changes primarily account for the greater role of visual images in journalism. Still, 1945 was a pivotal moment; few images have seared into the general and journalistic consciousness more than those from the liberated concentration camps. Auschwitz as a metaphor, if not as a reality (there were no photographs in American newspapers of a liberated Auschwitz), contributed to this profound journalistic transformation.
There is a flip side to journalism's more and more effective coverage of genocide, however. Governments bent on genocide also realize the power of press coverage and are determined to keep journalists away from the sites of massacres. That gives rise to a paradox. At the present moment, genocidal states have made it increasingly difficult for journalists, particularly to obtain photographs; and journalists are less likely to try, especially in times of decimated news budgets for foreign coverage. At the same time, it should be increasingly clear that nothing can be kept secret. If it was ridiculous in 1941 to believe that a state could transport millions of people over hundreds of miles, imprison them in ghettos, and then ship them to murder factories and keep that hidden, it is now totally preposterous. Now that everyone has a camera and the ability to post information and videos without the interference of a news organization, it is even less likely that genocide anywhere could be kept a secret.
I do not know whether that means it is better to take journalism out of the hands of journalists, to acknowledge and perhaps celebrate the fact that journalists no longer serve the agenda-setting function they once did. Or, maybe it means we should be bemoaning the loss of professionalism, because professionals still are the best hope for recognizing a catastrophe, publicizing it, and pushing governments to do something to stop it. You can look at the miserable job the U.S. press did in putting the Holocaust on the agenda of our policy makers and the public and be grateful that The New York Times and news organizations like it are no longer as influential. However, the lesson of the U.S. press's Holocaust coverage might just be that throwing information out there, without context or categories, makes it too easy for even the most horrible information and images to get lost in the din.
(1) David S. Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984); Deborah E. Lipstadt, Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust, 1933-1945 (New York: Free Press, 1986).
(2) Laurel Leff, Buried by The Times: The Holocaust and America's Most Important Newspaper (Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
(3) Leo Bogart, "Research as an Instrument of Power," in Everette E. Dennis and Ellen Wartella, eds., American Communication Research: The Remembered History, LEA's Communication Series (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1996), p. 137.
(4) Laurel Leff, "'Liberated by the Yanks': The Holocaust as an American Story in Postwar News Articles," JE.S. 40 (Fall, 2003): 407--430.
(5) See Laurel Leff, "Jewish Victims in a Wartime Frame: A Press Portrait of the Nuremberg Trial," in Debra Kaufinan, Gerald Herman, James Ross, and David Phillips, eds., From the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to Holocaust Denial Trials: Challenging the Media, the Law, and the Academy (London and Portland, OR: Vallentine Mitchell, 2007), pp. 80-101.…