From the September 2000 issue
Journalists are trained to report both sides of a story, but does that mandate still apply when the story is a historical fact? A Los Angeles Times reporter thinks it does, even if it means lending credence to the views of Holocaust deniers.
By Eric Umansky
When neo-Nazi Buford Furrow shot up a Jewish day camp on August 10, 1999 in Granada Hills, California, he called it a "wakeup call to kill Jews." After the assault, the Los Angeles Times decided to take a closer look at the people behind such attacks and assigned Seattle-based reporter Kim Murphy, a 17-year Times veteran, to the hate-crimes beat.
Murphy's subsequent stories offered detailed insight into the neo-Nazi movement but caused an uproar in Los Angeles's Jewish community, with many accusing the Times of legitimizing the views of anti-Semites.
The deniers, Murphy wrote, have even helped to clarify the historical record about the Final Solution, "hav[ing] pinpointed contradictions and hard-to-believe details in stories told by camp survivors," such as, the "myth" that Nazis made lampshades out of human skin. Though Murphy quoted a number of historians who dismissed such revisionism, she also noted that some deniers had "won testimonials from academics at respected institutions."
The story outraged members of the Los Angeles Jewish community. Many felt the 2,300-word article devoted far too much space to voicing the views of Holocaust deniers and naively treated them as simply one side of a historical debate. The controversy even found its way into the Times newsroom.
"Why were we trying to present two sides of a story to which there aren't two sides?" says Alan Abrahamson, a Times reporter for more than 11 years. "The Holocaust happened. Period."
On January 31, after numerous complaints to top editors from within and outside the Times, the paper ran a five-paragraph correction, noting that the "respected academics" that Murphy said corroborated the Holocaust deniers were in fact not historians and that even their own universities had repudiated their work. The correction also pointed out that a lampshade made of human skin had been "submitted to a U.S. congressional committee."
In April, a judge ruled against Irving in the case and ordered him to pay Lipstadt's legal fees, which exceeded $3 million. A Times editorial celebrated the verdict and quoted from the judge's decision, which called Irving a "pro-Nazi polemicist" and a "liar and falsifier of history."
A MONTH after the verdict, Murphy filed another story about Irving, reporting on a speech that, in her words, the "controversial World War II historian" had given in Orange County. In the May 30 article, Murphy described the Institute for Historical Review (IHR) as an organization that "has promoted revisionist examination of the Holocaust."
With that description, would Times readers have known that the IHR denies the Holocaust took place? They would if they visited the organization's website, which offers helpful articles such as "There Is No Evidence for Nazi Gas Chambers" and "A Prominent False Witness: Elie Wiesel." (It also reproduces Murphy's January Times article about Irving.) Murphy's second story again raised the ire of Los Angeles's Jewish community and others who had followed the trial. "People were just blown away," says historian Lipstadt. "At the very best, these were two highly irresponsible and poorly researched pieces."
And again, some in the Times newsroom were incensed. "Kim is a very good reporter," says David Lauter, the paper's religion editor, adding that he expressed his concern to his superiors after Murphy's first story ran. "But I think she screwed up on this particular subject, and I don't have an explanation for why." According to Lauter and Murphy, Times executive editor Leo Wolinsky signed off on Murphy's second story after asking her to quote more sources critical of Irving. Wolinsky declined to comment for this story, as did John Carroll, the editor of the Times.
Murphy says she has been stung by the criticism, but stands by her stories and says she will stay on the hate-crimes beat. "The Holocaust was horrible," she says. "[But] it's my profound belief that there are no questions that can't be asked. This is an issue of political correctness. There are just certain things you're not allowed to say, even in this country."
But some critics believe it's a question of accuracy, not sensitivity. "The Los Angeles Times has an obligation to tell the truth," says Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who was quoted in Murphy's second article. "The truth is, Irving is not a historian. He's a propagandist. By not getting that point, [the paper] did a fundamental disservice."