It’s always interesting when a powerful institution takes a public look at itself. Last Sunday, The New York Times published a review of Buried by The Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper, a book by journalist Laurel Leff, which details how The Times skirted the issue of the Holocaust during the early 1940’s, even as it was becoming more and more known that the Nazis were singling out Jews for mass murder. While The Times’ shameful delinquency on this front has been known and acknowledged by those within and outside the paper, the review is defensive in tone and works hard to discredit Ms. Leff’s point of view.
While the events of 60 years ago in no way implicate the current generation of Times owners and editors, the Holocaust wasn’t a proud moment in the newspaper’s history, and it’s shocking to consider, when other tragedies received careful analysis and reporting, how far off The Times’ radar screen the Holocaust remained. The publisher at the time, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, and his family were members of the “our crowd” German Jews in this country, and they didn’t want to alienate the powers that be in government and business. So questions of Jewish identity were often diluted in the paper’s pages, lest the Sulzbergers be seen as being on the “pro-Jewish” side. A conscious decision was made from the top to downplay stories which might give the impression that The Times was a “Jewish newspaper.” The editorial page mostly avoided mentioning Jews as specific victims of Nazi horrors; as reported in The Trust, a book by Susan Tifft and Alex Jones on The Times, the paper referred to those involved in the Warsaw ghetto uprising as “the Poles” and “Warsaw patriots.” Other examples: Stories in 1943 about the massacre of Jews in Italy and Austria didn’t make it on to page 1. The following summer, The Times reported that 400,000 Hungarian Jews had already been sent to their deaths and 350,000 more were about to follow them-but the story was hidden, given only four column inches on page 12. Sulzberger was also very much against the Zionist movement and opposed the creation of the state of Israel.
While it was perhaps inevitable that The Times had to review Ms. Leff’s book, lest the newspaper be accused of trying to ignore its publication, the review itself carries an unmistakable tone of condescension. While openly admitting that ” The Times was seriously negligent throughout the period,” The Times’ reviewer, Robert Leiter, spends a good portion of the review trying to discredit Ms. Leff, charging her book with the crime of “moral indignation” and calling it “a high-minded crusade against one newspaper.” The review contains some curious assertions: Mr. Leiter notes that during World War II, ” The Times was the pre-eminent newspaper in the country,” but then implies that even if The Times had run front-page headlines about the Holocaust, it wouldn’t have had an influence on the culture at large. The fact is, other papers across the country paid close attention to what The Times chose to highlight; they would have quickly followed the paper’s lead on any big story. Going even further, Mr. Leiter tries to lay the blame for The Times’ aloofness on the Holocaust itself: The Nazi death camps, he writes, were unprecedented, and thus the Sulzbergers couldn’t be expected to have “comprehended the extent of what was happening in Europe.”
Of course, no one can know if The Times’ failure to fully report on the Holocaust contributed to the American government’s weak and half-hearted efforts to stop the genocide. Indeed, in recent years, The Times reported in depth about the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Rwanda while the Clinton administration sat on its hands. And the paper has been exemplary in detailing the daily morass in Iraq while the Bush administration continues to pursue its disastrous foreign policy. Perhaps the Sulzbergers have learned a little something from George Santayana, who said, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
Where Have You Gone, AAA?
How the mighty have fallen. In the early 1980’s, 32 U.S. non-financial companies boasted a triple-A debt rating. They represented the cream of American business, companies such as Coca-Cola, 3M, A. T. & T., Campbell Soup, Eastman Kodak, Ford Motor Company, DuPont, Kraft Foods, and Procter & Gamble. Now just six can claim the triple-A distinction: Exxon Mobil, General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, United Parcel Service and Automatic Data Processing. The recent decision by Standard & Poor’s to drop the debt of Ford and General Motors down to junk-grade status wasn’t the only graphic illustration of how many former titans of American business have lost their value through overreaching, poor management and lost market share to sharper foreign competition.
The story of the decline in credit ratings is the story of American business over the past 25 years: an ego-driven greed for growth, inflamed by panic over how to compete in the burgeoning global marketplace. Chief executives and corporate boards, hungry for acquisition, began to balance their companies’ books atop a teetering mountain of debt, pleasing shareholders in the short term but doing damage to the long-term value of their businesses. As a detailed, company-by-company analysis by Standard & Poor’s notes, “debt capacity was viewed as a means to address business stagnation while keeping shareholders happy at the same time. Some took this notion a bit further, piling on huge amounts of debt for LBOs and hostile takeovers.”
Previously, in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, companies were largely run by executives who had come of age in lean economic times and operated from a conservative position with regard to credit risk and debt. The new generation who occupied those boardroom seats preferred to take big, often ill-considered risks; as Standard & Poor’s notes in regard to Procter & Gamble, they didn’t hesitate to have a “fling with acquisitions.” Or how about the chief executive of Beatrice Co., who chose to “take the company on a pretty wild ride”?
By contrast, those companies that currently have a triple-A rating were notable for a corporate culture of restraint. As Standard & Poor’s remarks about Exxon, “management never seemed to lose sight of what made the company successful.”
Standard & Poor’s reports that, when companies lose their AAA rating, it’s rare that any are able to climb back up, and most will continue to slide, not resting at AA but falling further to BBB and so on.
One wonders if the C.E.O.’s of the 21st century are paying attention.