A Distinction Journalists like to Ignore: 'Journalists, Both Then and Now, Too Readily Allow Fears of a Public Backlash to Inhibit Their Actions.'

By Leff, Laurel | Nieman Reports, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

A Distinction Journalists like to Ignore: 'Journalists, Both Then and Now, Too Readily Allow Fears of a Public Backlash to Inhibit Their Actions.'


Leff, Laurel, Nieman Reports


When Nazi Germany forced thousands of Jewish scholars and professionals to flee in the 1930's and early 1940's, many disciplines in the United States made significant efforts to help their persecuted colleagues. One did not--journalism.

Doctors, lawyers, psychologists and musicians established committees to help colleagues who, as a result of anti-Semitic legislation, were no longer allowed to practice their profession in Germany and later in other occupied countries. American journalists established no such committees. Historians, mathematicians, sociologists, chemists and economists added European scholars to their university departments, enabling them to immigrate to the United States outside of restrictive quotas. Journalism and mass communication departments made no such hires.

When two professors tried to enlist American law schools and American journalism schools in their efforts to retrain European refugees, journalists resisted their entreaties. While 21 law schools agreed to waive tuition and admit refugees, not a single journalism school accepted refugees through the program. While lawyers raised thousands of dollars for living expenses for the refugees enrolled in law schools, newspaper publishers wouldn't even consider such an effort. In fact, the publishers' association refused to allow one of the professors, Harvard's Carl Friedrich, to address their 1939 convention.

Although several factors explain this callousness toward professional brethren, who at the least were losing their livelihoods and, at the worst, their lives, one factor distinguished journalism from other professions and disciplines--the fear of a negative public response. Indeed, timidity in the face of anticipated public opposition is a recurring journalistic affliction. The news media's participation in the rush to war in Iraq is a recent example; their refusal to help their Jewish colleagues in the 1930's is a particularly repugnant one.

Of course, more benign explanations might account for journalists' reluctance to become involved in the refugee issue. They might have been worried about European refugees' lack of facility with the English language, as well as the tight job market due to the lingering effects of the Great Depression. But other professionals, who proved more welcoming, would have had similar concerns. Journalists might also have fretted about differences between American and European journalism, particularly the partisan nature of much of the European press. But again all disciplines faced challenges in acclimating refugees, and concerns about a different journalistic tradition wouldn't explain the reluctance to retrain Europeans in American journalism.

Instead, journalists may have been stymied by what they perceived to be the public mood. Opinion polls taken in the late 1930's indicated that a majority of Americans opposed greater immigration to the United States, and some of the opposition had anti-Semitic overtones. Journalists would have been uniquely sensitive to those sentiments. Although all disciplines had to overcome anti-Semitism, both latent and blatant, in order to help Jewish refugees, academics could operate within the ivory towel and other professionals needed to placate only their own constituents, not the public at large. Responding to public concerns, however, is built into the practice of journalism. To avoid appearing to take sides in what was considered a controversial issue and to avoid alienating Americans hostile to immigration and to Jews, journalists did nothing. …

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