Op-Ed: Reporting Auschwitz, Then and Now
Tom GrossTom Gross is a former Middle East correspondent for the London Sunday Telegraph and the New York Daily News.
Take the BBC, for example. As recently as January 13, 2005, the BBC posted a webpage titled "BBC Guides: The Holocaust. What was it?" Designed to explain the controversy over Prince Harry's wearing of a Nazi uniform at a fancy-dress party, that webpage neglected to mention Jews, erroneously stated that most Holocaust victims were German citizens, and encouraged the myth that other groups were persecuted by the Nazis to anything like the same extent that Jews were.
The BBC webpage blandly stated: "The Holocaust was a mass murder of millions of people.... Most of the victims died because they belonged to certain racial or religious groups, which the Nazis wanted to wipe out, even though they were German citizens. This kind of killing is called genocide."
Yet, last week, the BBC covered the commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz in a serious and thorough way, both on air and on-line. That most victims were Jews was highlighted. "The Holocaust. What was it?" and other webpages were corrected. And whereas, a week earlier the BBC had referred to the "Auschwitz prison camp", it now used the infinitely more accurate term "death camp". (If BBC staff really think it was a prison camp, they don't begin to understand what Auschwitz was.)
Other media with previously poor records, such as the French newspaper Le Monde, also had generally sound coverage.
The (London) Guardian, too, had some good pieces - although at the same time, true to form, it supplemented its lead editorial, titled "Holocaust Memorial Day: Eternal memory", with an accompanying commentary by former Oxford University professor Terry Eagleton, in which he justified suicide bombing "in Israel" and likened suicide bombers to their victims. (Unsurprisingly, the piece was reprinted the following day in the Saudi paper Arab News and appeared on a half-dozen extremist Moslem websites.)
The Guardian also couldn't resist greatly exaggerating the numbers of Roma (Gypsies) who died in the camps. (Perhaps the paper isn't aware that inflating the number of Roma and homosexuals killed by the Nazis, in order to try and de-emphasize the centrality of Jews among Holocaust victims, is now a favorite trick of revisionist historians.)
In the Arab world, most media simply ignored last week's anniversary altogether. In Iran, the government-linked Tehran Times marked the occasion by explicitly denying that "the so-called Holocaust" happened and accusing "Zionist leaders" of "conjuring up images of gas chambers." (It makes one wonder all the more what the Iranian regime wants nuclear weapons for.)
Still, as far as the Western media goes, this improved coverage today contrasts sharply with the lack of proper coverage in the decades following World War II, or even as recently as 10 years ago. And it also provides a bitterly ironic reminder of just how poor coverage was during the Holocaust itself.
The omissions of the New York Times are perhaps the most disturbing. Although it was far from being the only newspaper to deliberately play down or do its best to ignore Hitler's genocide, it bears a special responsibility, having been even then the world's single most influential paper.
Such was the Times' influence as the premier American source of wartime news (particularly so in an age before television) that had it reported the Holocaust properly, other US papers would probably have followed, and US public opinion might have forced the US government to act. (European papers - outside Nazi-occupied countries - provided slightly better, though still lamentable, coverage.) But the Times, possibly because they feared people might think of it a "Jewish" paper, made sure reports were brief and buried inside the paper. On June 27, 1942, for example, the Times devoted just two inches to the news that "700,000 Jews were reported slain in Poland."
On July 2, 1942, it noted that gas chambers were being used to kill 1,000 Jews a day - but only on page 6.
On November 25, 1942, it reported that there had been roundups, gassings, cattle cars and the disappearance of 90 percent of Warsaw's ghetto population - but only on page 10.
On December 9, 1942, its report that two million Jews had been killed and five million more faced extermination appeared only on page 20.
On July 2, 1944, it reported that 400,000 Hungarian Jews had been deported to their deaths so far, and 350,000 more were likely to be killed in the next weeks. Yet, this news received only four column inches on page 12. (That edition's front page carried an analysis of the problem of New York holiday crowds on the move.)
During the war, no article about the Jews' plight ever qualified as the Times' leading story of the day.
The New York Times has never properly acknowledged its failings in this matter. And the fact that a comparable mindset still seems to dominate the paper today continues to have consequences - whether in the unfair coverage it gives Israel, or the relative lack of attention given to other genocides and systematic acts of inhumanity, such as those in North Korea or Burma, and in particular those for which Arabs are chiefly responsible, as in Darfur. The tsunami tragedies can occupy the front page for days on end, but Darfur is lucky if it makes an inside page once in a week.