Sulzberger, an Anti-Zionist? Author Leff Says Yes
By JONATHAN GRONER
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
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
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.