Journalism Ethics after Auschwitz

By Leff, Laurel | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Journalism Ethics after Auschwitz


Leff, Laurel, Journal of Ecumenical Studies


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. …

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