Los Angeles, January 14, 2000
Getting It Very Wrong
How and why the L.A. Times failed in its report on Holocaust deniers
By Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor
In its article on "Danger in Denying the Holocaust?", did the Los Angeles Times exercise the traditional journalistic canon of presenting both sides of a contentious issue, or did the paper fall into the trap of giving obvious falsehood equal space with the truth?
To survivors and experts on the Holocaust, there is little doubt that the Times and reporter Kim Murphy gave credence to the lies of the deniers in the name of journalistic impartiality.
"It is a sign of immaturity, and inexperience on the reporter's part, to try and balance everything, because there are some things that can't be balanced," says Arthur Stern, a veteran of Bergen-Belsen and a Jewish Federation lay leader.
"I fear that at some point in the future, everything reported about the Nazi regime will be gray, and nothing will any longer be black and white," he adds.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, faults the Times' report on the same basis, and also charges that the article suffered from a glaring omission.
"The reporter left out the most crucial element, namely the confessions of the war criminals themselves," says Cooper. "The Nazis left an extensive paper trail and there are any number of quotes and statements by Himmler, Goebbels and Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoess, clearly documenting the extent of the Holocaust."
To Harold Schulweis, author and rabbi, of Valley Beth Shalom, denial of the Holocaust is "the ultimate obscenity... like poking in the cremated ashes of a loved one.
"What is the motivation behind saying that Jews died 'only' of starvation and typhus, but not gassing? It's like telling a person after a terrible tragedy to cheer up," he observes.
Yet, Schulweis feels that once revisionists and the likes of Pat Buchanan advance their twisted arguments, they must be confronted and their deceptions refuted, even if it makes us uncomfortable.
From that perspective, Schulweis does not fault the Times for presenting the revisionists' point of view in its columns, "I was not offended by the article," he says. "I see no advantage in shooting the messenger [for the unpleasant message]."
Others were less tolerant of the article.
"How can you even discuss whether 6 million or 5.1 million Jews were killed?", asked survivor and business leader Nathan Shapell. "After all these years, for a newspaper like the Los Angeles Times to print such an article is ridiculous."
William Elperin was equally blunt. The president of the 1939 Club, made up of survivors and their families, declared that "It's a travesty that at the beginning of the new millennium, elderly Holocaust survivors, who have gone through so much, still have to deal with this garbage."
To David Lehrer, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, "The Times badly missed the mark... it gives a legitimacy to revisionists that they don't deserve."
While neither Lehrer nor others interviewed charged the Times with hidden conspiracies or malicious intent in publishing the article, the ADL director found it "inadvertently offensive."
Whatever the impact of the Times article, it will be eclipsed in the next few months by the London trial of a libel suit by revisionist David Irving against Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt.
This courtroom drama, notes the Jerusalem Post, is expected to be the most highly publicized Holocaust trial since Adolf Eichmann's in 1961.
The paper cites the view of the eminent Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer of Yad Vashem, who sees the trial as a wonderful chance to debunk the deniers.
The Holocaust, says Bauer, "is not on trial... This is not a danger; this is an opportunity. I think these trials are very important because they bring to the fore a problem of historical truth... It's a tremendous opportunity for legitimate historians to prove what they are saying."
Others are less sanguine, fearing that the slightest legal infraction could lead to a judgment that would reward Irving with a technical victory.
Lehrer of the ADL shares the concern. "There is always a possibility, especially under British libel laws, of losing a case on a technicality."
January 14, 2000