The crimes committed against humanity and journalism by the New York Times in the 20th century are so huge and numerous they fill three new volumes from Cambridge University Press, Common Courage Press, and Verso.
In Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper, Laurel Leff condemns Times Publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger for keeping the Nazis’ atrocities against the Jews off Page One during World War II. Beverly Ann Deepe Keever’s News Zero: The New York Times and the Bomb accuses the newspaper of advancing U.S. government propaganda about nuclear weapons. And Howard Friel and Richard Falk’s The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misreports U.S. Foreign Policy blames U.S. intervention in Vietnam, Nicaragua, and Iraq on the Times because, among other things, it hasn’t properly explained to its readers how international law prohibits military adventurism.
And I thought I gave the Times a hard time.
Buried by the Times makes the most persuasive case against the paper, arguing that it failed in its journalistic mission by not explaining that Hitler was killing Jews because they were Jews. Leff counts 1,186 stories about the Jews of Europe in the paper between the war’s start in 1939 and its conclusion in 1945. Only 26 of those stories made it to Page One, and only six of them explicitly stated that Jews were the main target of the Nazis.
“No American newspaper was better positioned to highlight the Holocaust than the Times, and no American newspaper so influenced public discourse by its failure to do so,” she writes.
By the time the paper celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2001, it agreed so fully with Leff’s assessment that former executive editor Max Frankel cited her work in a Times feature.
“No single explanation seems to suffice for what was surely the century’s bitterest journalistic failure. The Times, like most media of that era, fervently embraced the wartime policies of the American and British governments, both of which strongly resisted proposals to rescue Jews or to offer them haven,” Frankel writes.
The Times avoided highlighting the Jewish plight because 1) its Jewish publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, insisted that the paper take a centrist line similar to the government’s on most issues; and 2) because Sulzberger didn’t want to plead special status for his tribe—acting as a “Jewish” rather than American publisher—when the whole world was aflame.
Keever’s News Zero reads like something from the slush pile at The Nation: well-researched, but as pedantic and repetitious as a lecture from your lefty grandfather. The book retells the story of how the Times lent its science reporter, William L. Laurence, to the military for a couple of months to document the last stages of the Manhattan Project. His War Department press releases and later Times A-bomb stories de-emphasized the long-term dangers of radioactivity, Keever insists, and began the decadeslong collusion between the paper and the government in which the Times ignored nuclear atrocities committed against Pacific Islanders, nuclear industry production workers, and U.S. soldiers and sailors.
Friel and Falk devote most of The Record of the Paper to holding the Times culpable for the Iraq invasion. The paper’s 50-year neglect of educating readers about the supremacy of international law has allowed the U.S. government to run wild in Indochina, South America, and Central America, they assert. Even Times-haters will have trouble choking this one down, since the international-law thesis The Record of the Paper is built around isn’t commonly subscribed to let alone universally held. Also, one doubts that the Times could have avoided the botch that was its weapons-of-mass-destruction coverage by instructing its reporters and editorialists to bone up on international law.
While instructive about the era, applying the standards of late-20th-century journalism to the newspapers of the 1940s as Leff and Keever do has only a limited relevance. Back then, the Times dominated the news agenda, especially among the intelligentsia and the bureaucracies. It wasn’t that the boundaries between press and government were fuzzy. Rather, at the higher levels they hardly existed. For instance, in the late 1940s the much-admired Scotty Reston of the New York Times thought nothing of secretly helping Sen. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan rewrite a foreign policy speech, and then later praising the end-product in print.
That the Times followed the government line on the campaign against European Jews and the A-bomb was predictable, given the standards of the day. I’d wager that an investigative bloodhound set loose on the Times’ 1940s and 1950s archives and told to dig into coverage about power and money wouldn’t have to go too far before finding a trove of bones.
Not to say that it can’t happen again, but at least two things have changed since 1940s that might prevent the Times from misleading its readers in the near future. For one thing, the paper, while still the biggest player in journalism, no longer monopolizes the national and international news agenda the way it did until the 1960s. The media pie has gotten much bigger, reducing the Times’ percentage of it. Television helped break its near-monopoly on the official Washington reporting, as did the burgeoning Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Time, and Newsweek, and growing newspaper chains like Knight Ridder and Scripps Howard, which established big bureaus in D.C.
Likewise, the Times has changed—although maybe not enough to satisfy Keever, Friel, and Falk. The government-press partnership, which Washington and the Times exploited to their mutual benefit for decades, doesn’t produce safe returns for either one any more, especially in a competitive environment where other news organizations can expose it. Even the paper’s weapons-of-mass-destruction screw-up had less to do with paper wanting to parrot the government line than it did with a reporter and her editors believing that the turds they’d uncovered were diamonds.
Policing the Times, once the province of the Village Voice, Accuracy in Media, and the occasional books,has become such a growth industry that even the Times has entered it. Like many, I scoffed at the idea of a Times public editor when Executive Editor Bill Keller originally announced the position. But Daniel Okrent’s 18-month tenure as the paper’s internal critic and readers’ advocate has made the paper newly transparent and accountable—or at least translucent and approachable. Whether Okrent’s success was a function of his cussedness and wit as opposed to his position on the field will be determined by the output of public editor on deck, Byron E. “Barney” Calame. Good luck, Barney, and don’t forget to wear a hardhat.
The imperial power the Times flexed in the mid-20th century was impossible to sustain, something the paper’s modernizers—A.M. Rosenthal on his non-paranoid days, Max Frankel, and Joseph Lelyveld—each realized. Their attempts at right-sizing the Times’ ego in the new news universe didn’t become apparent until throwback editor Howell Raines arrived in 2001 and sought to reinstate the old, old order. Acting as though it was 1943 and he was Arthur Hays Sulzberger, Raines tried to dictate the news to his newsroom and to his readers. And look what happened.
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