- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2001

The cherry blossoms are bursting into pink flame around the Tidal Basin, the Senate is busy chipping away at the First Amendment, and the nations editors are in town this week for the annual convention of 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 Mr. Kalb narrates a new documentary 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 Americas 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 papers 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 traveling gas chambers in a brief dispatch on Page 6. A lighthearted 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 thats fit to print" to see whats important and whats 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 wasnt. "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 wasnt 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 dont think that absolves the editors of those other newspapers." Lesson taken to heart: Abe Rosenthal writes frequently today of the systematic persecution and abuse of Christians in Africa.
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 capitals leading newspapers of the era) and The Washington Post. Abe Rosenthal thinks this wouldnt 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 newspapers credibility. We must make sure were listening.

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