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Jewish Journal

Illusions at the L.A. Times

January 13, 2000 | 7:00 pm

Last Friday the Los Angeles Times published a Column One story on its front page with the headline: Danger in Denying Holocaust? The Times' story, written by staff writer Kim Murphy, purported to be an objective, balanced account of two equally reasoned positions. It was depicted as a conflict between scholars: Those who were Holocaust deniers and debunkers arrayed against those who claimed the evidence supporting the Holocaust was irrefutable.

Murphy also developed a parallel theme, portraying, somewhat sympathetically, Holocaust deniers who were being punished for their ideas.

It was a perspective that inflamed some members of Los Angeles's Jewish community, particularly survivors and their families. The most emotional respondents were quick to claim anti-Semitism, but that, on the face of it, is misguided. The Times is neither anti-Semitic nor anti-Israel. That still leaves the question hanging: Why would the Los Angeles Times take such a tack, one where equal weight and legitimacy is given to each view? And why would its editors let such reporting sail by?

I called Kim Murphy, the staff writer who researched and wrote this particular Column One story. Murphy is based in Seattle and has been assigned to cover the hate movements in America. She is 44 and has experience as a foreign correspondent in the Times' Cairo bureau, and in the Balkans as well. She has also put in time as a metro and Orange County reporter. She is no novice.

From her point of view, her job "is to present all points of view fairly and accurately;" and to write an account that is balanced and objective. If that appears to legitimate the arguments of the Holocaust deniers, that is not her problem. In the end, she explained, the readers should be able to make up their own mind. "I trust the judgment of our readers," she asserted.

Despite Murphy's statement to me (and her belief), her story is neither balanced nor objective, though she is correct: each side is given its say.

Her bias or point of view can be found in the tone and the structure of the piece; in effect, in the choices she has made. For example, all of page one focuses on the Holocaust deniers, who are depicted as victims. The story actually follows the headline: Yes, it suggests, there is danger in denying the Holocaust, in pursuing freedom of speech or thought, at least in this instance.

The lead anecdote gives us a humanizing account of a Ph.D. candidate punished for his independent inquiry into theHolocaust's "existence." He loses his wife and his position at the university, and is sentenced to prison. It is ironic that in presenting two sides of an argument about the Holocaust, it is the deniers who are the martyrs, not the survivors. The merits of the survivors' position are given to us on the jump page in the last section. There are no anecdotes; no human interest stories; no glimpses of lives lost or endured. Only exposition and generalization.

Murphy told me that she had interviewed at least one survivor and had read some literature of each side. She had traveled to Germany once, but had never visited a death camp. More to the point, she offers no balancing details that jump out at us rendering the human side of the Holocaust; only the deniers are given a dramatic voice. Why? Reporter's choice.

The same kind of bias occurs when it comes to quotes. David Irving, the British revisionist who has filed a libel suit in London against an American historian because of her comments about him in her book on the Holocaust, is introduced in this manner: "He has described Auschwitz as 'a very brutal slave labor camp, where probably 100,000 Jews died.'" It is a revisionist perspective, but to someone unfamiliar with the facts not necessarily an unreasonable statement.

Why this quote and not, say, this one, from among many: "I don't see any reason to be tasteful about Auschwitz. It's baloney. It's a legend. Once we admit that it was a brutal slave camp and a large number of people died elsewhere in the war, why believe the rest of the baloney? I say, quite tastelessly in fact, that more women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz." Irving said that in Calgary, Canada in 1991. Why not that quote?

If the writer does not see that she is shaping a "balanced" report on Holocaust revisionists by emphasizing freedom of speech instead of the weight and seriousness of their contentions, why did not the editors catch it? Roger Smith, the Column One editor, was quick to apologize for any hurt survivors felt. "Don't fault us for bad intentions," he said. The aim was to give a forum to both sides, to dramatize the conflict that is out there. In the process, he explained, the paper hoped to alert the reader to arguments deniers make. The newspaper would not side with one faction or the other, he said. It was up to the reader to proceed further and make up his own mind.

Invariably such a presentation validates both views. And places, I believe, a heavy burden on the reader, especially the uninformed reader, to explore further and make up his own mind.

I asked Smith if he, the editor, had read any of the writing of either side, before or after the story had crossed his desk. No, I have not, he said.

The best newspapers expect their reporters and editors to make judgment calls: To determine when two sides require equal space; and to organize a story in a way that is comprehensive and complete, with hierarchical attention paid to details.

It is doubtful that any newspaper would give equal balanced space to contending points of view about pedophilia on the Internet; or to those who condemn and defend homosexuals; or argue that blacks are or are not inferior to whites; or debate whether slavery in the United States was necessarily deplorable.

There are certain truths, cultural truths, that are assumed to have been verified by evidence. The existence of the Holocaust is one such truth. One such fact. You would not know it from reading the L.A. Times. -- Gene Lichtenstein


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