In 1996 the New York Times celebrated its centennial under the ownership of the Ochs-Sulzberger dynasty with an exhibit at the New York Public Library. The exhibit featured a retrospective of important stories covered during the paper's history. Accompanying the exhibit, a two-sentence mea culpa stated that "The New York Times has been criticized for grossly underplaying coverage of the Holocaust. Although some reports were given prominence, this display shows that the criticism was valid." Next to the caption was a 1942 story proclaiming "1,000,000 Jews Slain by Nazis" but appearing only on page seven.
Laurel Leff's thoroughly researched study of the way the New York Times handled stories about the persecution of Jews from 1933 to 1945 is an extraordinary work of documentation and analysis. Some of the statistics she presents speak for themselves. For example, from September 1939 to May 1945 the paper published 1,186 stories about the fate of European Jews, yet only twenty-six made the front page, and in only six of those were Jews identified as the primary victims.
The reasons Leff suggests for this "burying" of the Holocaust in the back pages of the Times go beyond the usual explanations (i.e., the primary focus on a global conflict, the suspicion of "atrocity stories" following the experience of World War I, the fear of playing into Hitler's propaganda by focusing on Jewish victims, and the lack of access by Times correspondents once the war began). While Leff does not entirely dismiss these factors, she does stress the shortcomings of each explanation and argues that they do not convincingly explain the placement and editorial decisions made by the Times. She does an especially good job of demonstrating how much credible information was in fact available to the far-flung corps of New York Times European correspondents.
Leff's grim conclusion is that the mass murder of the Jews was simply not an important enough story for the New York Times. This, in turn, was partly because it was not an important enough story for the Allied governments or the Western public. Another crucial factor in the decision to minimize the plight of the Jews, according to Leff, was the personal influence of the New York Times' publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger. Sulzberger believed that the Jews were not a "people," much less a race, and that they should not be treated differently from anybody else, even when clearly targeted for annihilation. His obsessive need to deflect accusations that the Times was a "Jewish" newspaper influenced coverage of Jewish persecution and ultimately mass murder.
In one of the many examples Leff gives, Sulzberger forced James G. McDonald (the former League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees who was just about to join the Times editorial board) to refuse an award from a Jewish organization for his attempts to help Jewish refugees. He suggested to McDonald that his work had been to draw attention to the plight of all refugees and that "to accord you the honor which they proposed would again contribute to placing the emphasis upon the Jewish side of the question" (p. 33). Moreover, while Sulzberger made every effort to rescue his own relatives from Germany, the Times supported the restrictive aspects of American immigration policy; endorsed the British policy of severely restricting Jewish immigration into Palestine as promulgated in the White Paper of May 1939; and supported the State Department's rejection of a Vichy offer to allow interned Jews to immigrate to the United States in 1941. As early as 1937 the Times had cut off its subscription to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the newswire that was to produce the most regular and reliable accounts of the mass killings.
The Times, to be sure, was not the only major newspaper that failed adequately to report on the destruction of European Jewry. It was unique, however, in that it had the power to set the agenda for other periodicals, which often took their cues about the importance of a story (then as now) from its placement in the Times.
Leff makes the important point that during this period, "news" was often what the government considered...