Sulzberger, an Anti-Zionist? Author Leff Says Yes


In Buried by The Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper, Northeastern journalism professor Laurel Leff provides a detailed indictment of the New York Times’ coverage of the Shoah. Leff, a veteran reporter, does not conclude that the Times ignored the events of the Holocaust as they occurred but rather that the newspaper of record systematically downplayed them. Leff’s final chapter discusses at length and in an extraordinarily thought-provoking manner a host of possible reasons for the Times’ policy in the 1940s.

Recently, Jonathan Groner, a Washington, D.C.-based writer and former managing editor of
Legal Times, interviewed Leff via e-mail about some of the striking conclusions of her book. (Disclosure: Groner worked briefly with Leff in a newsroom about 10 years ago.) Their lively conversation follows.

Groner: One of the notable conclusions that struck me about your book was how strongly committed Arthur Hays Sulzberger was to the anti-Zionist credo that became associated with the American Council for Judaism. You provide meticulous documentation for the conclusion that Sulzberger was not merely a non-Zionist but was actively opposed to the creation of a Jewish state, and was even opposed to establishing Palestine as a refuge for hundreds of thousands of Jews trapped in Nazi-occupied Europe. Did those findings provide a major foundation for your thesis that the Times intentionally downplayed the news of the Holocaust as the news came in?

Leff: Yes, it did. Going into the project, I had assumed that Sulzberger was a fairly typical assimilationist German Jew, meaning that he acknowledged he was Jewish but had only the most tenuous connections to the religion and to the community. It was only when I started poking around in Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver's papers, a copy of which are at Yale University, that I realized how deeply Sulzberger was involved in the fight against a Jewish state. Silver led several Zionist organizations during World War II. In Silver’s papers I found minutes of meetings where Jewish officials plotted to combat the Times’ anti-Zionism, as well as its downplaying of incidents such as the sinking of the Sturma. (Having been refused admission to Palestine, the unseaworthy boat sank, killing all but one of the 768 refugees aboard.)

Even more surprising, I found evidence that Sulzberger was actively engaged in the fight both publicly—making speeches, publishing letters in Jewish publications, writing widely circulated, angry letters—and privately, by lobbying U.S. and British officials and keeping a close watch on the Times’ news coverage. This contradicted not only my assumption that Sulzberger had no ties to the Jewish community, but also that, as publisher, Sulzberger didn’t involve himself in partisan causes or in the news side of the business.

These assumptions, I now realize, emerged from post-war books about the Times and were encouraged, either consciously or not, by the Sulzberger family that continues to run the newspaper today. It then seemed to me that Sulzberger to a great extent dictated the Times coverage of Jewish issues, including what we now call the Holocaust, and that his motives were more complicated than not wanting Jews to be featured too prominently in the paper out of fear that people would know he was a Jew.

That led me to explore his and his family’s Jewish background, his relationships with Jewish groups, including the American Council for Judaism and Rabbi Stephen Wise’s World Jewish Congress, his connections to other prominent Jews such as Felix Frankfurter and Henry Morgenthau, and his correspondence with U.S. government officials, including Cordell Hull and Sumner Welles. As a result, I concluded that his attitude toward Judaism, including his anti-Zionist orientation, affected his and his newspaper's approach to reporting and editorializing on the ongoing destruction of European Jewry.

Groner: Having read several other books about the history of the New York Times, including accounts by insiders like James Reston as well as outsiders such as Gay Talese, I agree that you broke new ground in showing how involved Sulzberger was, as publisher, in the news coverage of Jewish affairs generally and the Holocaust specifically. Have you found yourself fielding objections from supporters of the conventional wisdom that the Sulzbergers have adopted a consistent laissez-faire attitude toward the paper's editorial content? Did you uncover any evidence that the publisher's involvement extended to other subjects of news coverage beyond Jewish issues?

Leff: To my surprise, I haven’t fielded objections claiming that Sulzberger maintained a laissez-faire approach. I was mainly interested in his approach to Jewish issues so I didn’t look too closely for evidence of his interest in other news subjects. From memos and letters I came across, however, I do think that he was generally more involved in news coverage than has been supposed. For example, he sent memos to the night editors about all kinds of picayune things such as the size type to use for military communiqués. And the night editors listened to him, while they tended not to pay attention to the managing editor. Sulzberger also was willing to use the newspaper to push selected causes.

For example, throughout the war he served on the board of the American Red Cross and instructed the editors where and how to run the organization’s releases and news about its various drives. Not surprisingly, those stories appeared on page one and cast the organization and its mission in the most positive light. Interestingly, Sulzberger also devoted a lot of time and energy, employing his highest-level government contacts, to arrange an interview with Joseph Stalin that he would have personally conducted. Stalin, however, wouldn’t do it, but that's another example of his stepping outside the typical publisher role. Still, I think his interest in Jewish issues and his willingness to convey those concerns to his staff was his greatest sensitivity.

Groner: You examine many hypotheses about why the Times did not cover the Holocaust in more depth or give it better play on Page One: the desire not to be seen as pressing a Jewish agenda, the fact that some editors literally did not believe the extent of the Nazis' crimes, the recollection that "German atrocities" were overplayed in the press during World War I, subtle manipulation of the press by the Roosevelt Administration, and so on.

One theory that jumped out at me was an examination of the bureaucratic decision-making process at the paper: Most of the editors who determined the play of a story were essentially middle-level bureaucrats who followed an implicit formula about a story's importance. Does this striking conclusion apply to major newspapers in the 21st century as well, and if it does, what implications does it have for Jews, and for interest groups in general, who want to influence press coverage of their issues?

Leff: That decisions about a story’s placement were relegated to mid-level editors partly resulted from the Times' mid-century corporate culture. For whatever reasons, the Times' managing editor, the top editorial decision-maker, liked to leave the newsroom at 6 p.m. and rarely left instructions for the night editors on how to play stories. So the night editors, who were copy editors more attuned to issues of style than substance, made all the key decisions about which stories would appear on the front page. Given their background and their lack of clear authority, they tended to apply a more formulaic approach to story-placement decisions. That made it more difficult for them to decide that the story of the Jews’ persecution, which had long been considered a secondary story consigned to an inside page, should be a front-page story as the number of deaths mounted and the means employed became more horrifying.

From my experience working at late-20th-century newspapers, most top editors—executive editors, managing editors, assistant managing editors—are more involved in placement decisions, at least for what is perceived to be big stories. All the newspapers at which I’ve worked, the Wall Street Journal, the Miami Herald, the various American Lawyer newspapers, the Hartford Courant, have had an afternoon meeting, led by a top editor, in which various section editors explain the stories their reporters will be filing and offer suggestions for proper placement. The top editors will then inform the night editors how they think stories should be played. (The Times didn’t have such meetings until the 1950s.) Things often change as the day progresses—stories become more or less important as the reporters gather information, other news breaks. The night editor, who is in charge in the evenings, ultimately decides the front-page stories, but if there’s change and it’s important, he or she is likely to consult with a top editor.

The key term, however, is “important.” Lots of stories fall under the radar and aren’t focused upon by top editors. Those stories are likely to be handled exclusively by mid-level editors and could be assigned to inside pages for bureaucratic reasons. A related finding from Buried by The Times is how critical a newspaper’s initial decision about a story’s importance can be. Once the Times, for example, concluded that the Jews’ persecution was a secondary story, the paper didn’t assign a reporter to cover it exclusively. The reporters who did write about it, in different countries at different times, therefore also tended to be second-rate reporters, whom the editors didn’t respect much. Or, as in the Berlin bureau, the Times uncharacteristically relied upon the wire services for stories about the Jews’ persecution. From the night editors’ perspective, stories filed by second-rate reporters or obtained from wire services were less likely to be destined for the front page.

So the initial decision that the Jews’ persecution was a relatively unimportant story tended to be self-reinforcing. The struggle then and now for Jews and for interest groups generally is to have their issues considered important enough for top editors to focus on them. Then there’s more chance the issue will be confronted and discussed and the facts will have a better chance to emerge. Once something is buried, even something as monumental as genocide, it is extremely difficult for it to be uncovered.

Groner: How would you evaluate the New York Times' approach to Israel and Jewish issues today? Can you evaluate the persistent accusations from some Jewish and pro-Israel circles that the Times has a subtle anti-Israel bias, especially when dealing with the intifada and the Palestinian issue generally?

Leff: One of the things I learned from my research is not to make assumptions about news coverage without actually having studied it. Many historians and almost all the journalists who have previously examined either the Holocaust or the Times assumed that there weren’t any news stories about the Holocaust while it was happening. None of the books about the New York Times mention the Holocaust at all until the 1990s, and even then it’s referred to only briefly and tangentially. And yet I found nearly 1,200 Times stories about the Holocaust that were published during World War II, or about one every other day.

I’m therefore reluctant to evaluate the Times’ current approach to Israel and Jewish issues without having made a systematic study. I will say, however, that it’s an extremely interesting and important area of research. There’s no question the Times' owners' anti-Zionism persisted past the founding of the state of Israel and most likely affected how the newspaper has covered the state for the last 57 years. But exactly how it has influenced the coverage, I’m not sure. The contemporary dynamics are different than they were in the 1930s and 1940s. The current publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., has a non-Jewish mother and was raised as an Episcopalian. For some of the same reasons that the Reform movement has “forgotten” its anti-Zionist roots, the Sulzberger family has been largely unaware of its own religious heritage, and by that I mean its role in Classical Reform Judaism, not as Jews. So if there is an anti-Israel bias—and I’m not saying there is—it’s a product of different forces than were at work in the period I studied. I’d also say that Jews in almost all the communities in which I’ve spoken—Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Miami—assume that their newspaper has an anti-Israel bias, which also suggests that something besides half-a-century-old anti-Zionism is feeding the perception, and perhaps the reality, of the American media as exceptionally critical of Israel.