How The New York Times downplayed Nazi crimes

John Kane-Berman writes on one of the most significant failures in newspaper history

This year’s Holocaust commemoration in South Africa – Yom HaShoah – will be held as a national Zoom meeting on 8th April. One of the lesser known facts about that crime against humanity is about how it was reported – or not reported – by one of the leading newspapers of the English-speaking world, The New York Times.

Buried by The Times – The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper, a book by Laurel Leff published in 2005, is a tale about one of the most significant failures in newspaper history.

In it Ms Leff, a journalist who later became an academic, tells the story of how that influential newspaper played down Adolf Hitler’s policy of exterminating Jews. She provides both a statistical analysis of the paper’s coverage of the Holocaust, and an explanation of why the Times downplayed the story.

When war broke out, the paper had more than 30 correspondents in Europe. From them and from many others, including Jews in Europe and the US, it was, throughout the war, the recipient of plenty of information about what was happening. It printed numerous news articles from various sources about murders of Jews, but played them down in two ways. One was to write in general about killings, without mentioning Jews as the main victims. Another was to bury the news on inside pages.

According to Ms Leff, during the nearly six years of the Second World War, the paper ran 1 186 stories about what was happening to the Jews of Europe, but only 26 of these were on the front page, and in only 6 of these were Jews identified as the primary victims. By contrast, reprisals against resistance movements and Nazi persecution of Christians made the front page 57 times during the first three years of the war.  

Of reporting on the fate of European Jews Ms Leff comments, “The story never received the continuous attention or prominent play that a story about the unprecedented attempt to wipe out an entire people deserved.”

The paper’s first story about the Nazi extermination campaign – describing it as “the greatest mass slaughter in history” - appeared on page five, tacked on at the bottom of a column. Most stories – in more than 2 000 wartime editions of the paper – were buried even further inside. One story about how 6 000 Jews were being murdered daily in Poland ran on page 37. Yet stories about the killings of other people, even if fewer than 100, regularly appeared on the front page.

Some killings were missed altogether. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) reported on the execution of 52 000 men, women, and children at Babi Yar near Kiev in September 1941. The JTA made it clear that this was not a pogrom but that the victims had been “systematically and methodically put to death”.

Other papers published this news, but the Times did not do so until the Soviet foreign minister announced it. Even then, neither its news report nor the editorial mentioned that the victims were mainly Jews.

In December 1942 the 11 Allied member governments formally confirmed the existence of Germany’s policy of “cold-blooded extermination” of the Jews. This the Times reported. But it did not alter its policy of playing down that very story.

Decisions about whether and where news stories were to be placed in each morning’s newspaper were made by night news editors. The night-by-night decisions to bury the news were theirs. But they operated within a context. The paper’s managing editor, Edwin James, never once mentioned Jews in the regular Sunday opinion column he wrote throughout the war. And its Washington bureau chief, Arthur Krock, published 1 200 columns during the war, but not one mentioned what was being done to the Jews.

On 3rd September 1944, the fifth anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Poland, the week-in-review section of the paper ran a full page on “Outstanding events and major trends of the Second World War”. It made no mention of Jews. Nor did the week-in-review section ever mention mass murder at Auschwitz.

An editorial in January 1945 assessing “Twelve years of Hitler” referred to Jews only in the context of his having blamed them and the Versailles treaty for the war. And when Hitler committed suicide, the paper referred to the “civilian toll” of millions who died or were murdered in death camps but made no mention that any of them were Jews.                              

Throughout the war the paper was under the editorial and business control of Arthur Hays Sulzberger, himself Jewish. Well aware of anti-Semitism among Americans, he did not want to be accused of using his paper to promote what might be seen as Jewish interests. This was one reason why the fate of Jews in Europe was downplayed.

Another was that the strongly anti-Zionist Sulzberger believed that Judaism was only a religion, not the basis of nationality or statehood. This meant, Ms Leff suggests, that he believed Jews were the same as everybody else, no matter what Hitler said. “The fate of Jews should be linked to that of other oppressed people, and never identified as a separate tragedy.”

“For both philosophical and tactical reasons,” she adds, “he was content that stories about the destruction of Jews remain inside the paper.”  

Reflecting its publisher’s views, the paper saw the fate of the Jews as similar to that of other oppressed people. The Times editorialised that the Jews were only “the weakest and least numerous of the German religious minorities”, and could therefore be “most safely persecuted”. Once Nazism got stronger, it could turn its fury on its true target, “the Protestant and Catholic communions in Germany”.

Among the consequences of the paper’s policy of treating mass extermination as a minor story was that the American public remained largely ignorant of the genocide being perpetrated. Ms Leff writes: “Because the Times and other publications did not feature what was happening to European Jews as Jews on its front page, or write about their fate repeatedly in hard-hitting editorials, or highlight their plight in magazine articles or in retrospectives, the information was lost amidst a barrage of world-shattering news.” Nor did the paper help its readers to understand the importance of what was being done to the Jews.

During the war the paper ran 24 000 stories on its front page. Not even half of 1% had anything to do with the fate of Jews in Europe. The effect of the policy of The New York Times was to render them almost invisible.           

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.