Holocaust denial is a particularly insidious evil. It was almost painful to read The Times’ earnest struggle to report on the Iranian Holocaust-deniers’ conference in anticipation of its opening on Dec. 11. It will be fascinating to see how the rest of the media reports on this conference of “scholars” whose distinguished keynote speaker is David Duke, whose previous scholarly career has included a stint as a Ku Klux Klan leader.
And yet “scholars” is the word used in the Times headline for its Dec. 6 story, datelined Tehran and bylined Nazila Fathi. The headline reads: Iran Invites Scholars to Assess Holocaust as History or Fiction.
One is tempted to say (or to wish) that there was a note of satire in the hed, one that conjured up an alternative Onion-like hed: Iran Invites Scholars to Assess Whether World Is Round or Flat.
But the Times story takes things much more seriously, and at least in certain respects, this is a wise decision: This conference deserves serious attention. It is, alas, not a joke, this convocation of evil clowns summoned by a genocidally-minded regime whose policy it is to perpetrate a Holocaust while attempting to deny that one has already happened.
Serious attention, yes—but what kind of serious attention? Is it the serious attention implied by the headline’s use of the word “Scholars” (significantly, a second story on the conference, published by The Times on Dec. 12, used the phrase “discredited scholars” and remedied some, but not all, defects of the first story) and the verb “Assess” (implying a judicious deliberative dialogue between Holocaust flat-earthers and “the other side”). Is this what being “fair and balanced” means? Equal time for truth and lies? Does the language and tone of the hed impute a legitimacy to this parliament of fools?
Holocaust denial is particularly insidious because one doesn’t want to be in the position of privileging one historical truth or tragedy over another. And yet Holocaust denial is almost always connected with an anti-Semitic, Hitler-friendly agenda. To deny or ignore the existence of this while reporting on “scholars” engaged in “assess[ing]” the matter is to deny the whole truth of something like the Iranian “conference.”
The initial Times story exposes the problems for reporters and editors that both Holocaust denial and Iranian genocidal rhetoric pose to media covering it. The problem it poses to the notion of “objectivity” when covering a malevolent pseudo-discipline like Holocaust denial, especially when it’s sponsored by a state that makes exterminationist threats.
Are you familiar with the Iranian conference of Holocaust “scholars”? The intention to hold one had been announced earlier this year in the wake of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s genocidal threats against the State of Israel and publicly expressed doubts about the reality of Hitler’s mass murder. The phrase “adding insult to injury” doesn’t really do justice to the murderous obscenity of Mr. Ahmadinejad.
Here is how the Times story, datelined “TEHRAN, Dec. 5” and run on p. A5, introduced the Iranian announcement:
“The Iranian authorities, who have frequently accused the Jews of distorting history to legitimize Israel, announced plans on Tuesday for an international conference on the Holocaust.
“They said the conference, to be held in Tehran next Monday and Tuesday, would include more than 60 scholars from 30 countries and would examine a range of issues, including whether the gas chambers were actually used.”
You didn’t realize that was a serious open question, whether gas chambers were used? Nor do serious scientists or historians (a quick, comprehensive account of the abundant evidence for the use of Zyklon-B poison gas for mass murder in the Holocaust can be found online in “The Chemistry of Auschwitz,” by Richard J. Green, www.holocaust-history.org/ auschwitz/chemistry/).
Should the Times account include a reference to the fact that the weight of evidence compiled by all serious scientists and historians confirms the fact that gas chambers were used to murder millions? Does the failure to include this minor caveat leave open an implication that there is legitimate controversy over the question among “scholars”? Would such a statement—that it has been established that gas chambers were used to murder Jews—make the article more objective, more factually correct, or would it open itself to the charge of being special pleading? Or does The Times want to give the impression that it is not yet willing to acknowledge the gas chambers as indisputable fact, but something worthy of “assessment” by “scholars”?
Of course you could say it would be tantamount to insulting its readers’ intelligence to include an assertion that the gas chambers existed. And for most of its readers, that would be true. But there are large areas in the Middle East (and other regions as well) where people take Holocaust denial as Holy Writ, the way that large percentages of people in the Middle East believe the Israelis engineered 9/11. The Times Web site is available worldwide now, so the assumption of the use of gas chambers is not at all taken for granted everywhere it’s read, and pernicious doubt—legitimacy for Holocaust deniers—is spread by refraining from stating the obvious in discussing what the “scholars” are “assessing.”
I’m not saying these are easy decisions or that they weren’t made in good faith. I don’t envy the Times editors who had to and will have to deal with them. I’m just examining some of the implications of the decisions that were made.
Is there a conflict between factuality and objectivity? Is accurately pointing out the fact that millions were gassed in death camps violating “objectivity”—“taking sides”—or is it a responsible corrective to the potential implication that there is a real controversy outside the sick minds of Holocaust deniers?
I’m not saying I know the answer. I’d say the greater problem would be The Times’ apparent unquestioning acceptance in that first story that the conference participants would in fact all be “scholars.” Especially since we learn later in the story that the Iranian “authorities” refused to identify any of them by name. Holocaust deniers often pose as “scholars,” but at what point does their Holocaust denial subvert (if not deny them) the honorific?
Even more important is the way that implicit acceptance of the idea that there is legitimate scholarly controversy over the gas chambers affects the way the Holocaust is described in the succeeding paragraph.
Here we are told that “Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, stirred outrage in the West last year when he stated on several occasions that the Holocaust, in which six million Jews perished at the hands of the Nazis, was either greatly exaggerated or an outright myth” (italics mine).
Note the way here that The Times feels compelled to explicitly state that the Holocaust happened: “ … six million Jews perished at the hands of the Nazis.” (It would be more accurate to say that “between five million and six million Jews perished at the hands of the Nazis, according to legitimate scholars.”)
But note also that they do not explicitly state that gas chambers were used, which can leave the implication that although six million Jews “perished at the hands of Nazis,” they may have been strangled, for all we are told. And the choice of such language—“perished at the hands”—in the context of a controversy over the methods used, could sound like a carefully worded suggestion there may indeed be room for controversy over whether gas chambers were used. By labeling one aspect of the Holocaust explicitly factual—the death toll—the failure to label the use of gas chambers factual becomes more noticeable.
And note as well that Mr. Ahmadinejad’s statements that the Holocaust was “greatly exaggerated or an outright myth” are not characterized as untrue, demonstrable lies but rather as having “stirred outrage,” something very different. This language about “stirring outrage” is generally used for statements or theories that are controversial but still might be true. Copernicus’ theory that the earth revolves around the sun initially “stirred outrage” but turned out to be true. If Mr. Ahmadinejad had made statements that the sun revolves around the earth in advance of a conference of “scholars” to “assess” his theory, would the Times report have merely said his theory has “stirred outrage”?
The attempt to report on this conference of liars and deniers “objectively” makes it evident just how insidious a challenge to the notion of “objectivity” Holocaust denial is.
It should be remembered (as I point out in Explaining Hitler) that Hitler himself was the First Holocaust Denier. He sought to keep the Final Solution a secret, believing (alas, mistakenly) that if word got out, he would suffer consequences for it from the aroused conscience of the world. Well, word did get out, and despite the heroic efforts of those like Ben Hecht (the journalist and screenwriter who agitated ceaselessly for action to halt the Final Solution as the mass murder proceeded), the conscience of the world remained largely undisturbed.
Almost all Holocaust deniers follow in Hitler’s footsteps, share Hitler’s two-faced view of Holocaust denial: They deny it happened but are glad it did. Mr. Ahmadinejad has taken this one step further, I’d argue: He denies that it happened, is glad that it happened, and wants to make it happen again.
To its credit, the Times report does suggest a connection between the “scholars’ conference” and the genocidal aims of Iranian policy. Debunking the Holocaust contributes to delegitimizing the State of Israel, portraying it as the product of a historical fraud perpetrated on the world, thus diminishing the small amount that the world cares for the fate of the people Mr. Ahmadinejad wants to “wipe off the map.”
But what is one to make of this statement in the Times story: The Iranian spokesman said the conference would “provide the opportunity for scholars from both sides to give their papers in freedom and without preconceived ideas” (italics mine). An endorsement for those who believe there are two sides to the question of whether the earth is flat or round? Is The Times’ certitude about the Holocaust and the gas chambers less than certain?
Perhaps the most puzzling omission, though, was the failure to include a response to any of the deeply disingenuous Iranian statements, such as this one: “The conference does not mean that Iran ‘denies the crimes of Hitler. Since we are not accused and responsible for the Holocaust, we are an impartial judge.’”
Yes, the world’s greatest purveyor of anti-Semitism, constantly threatening to “wipe Israel off the map,” is an “impartial judge.” Reuters, at least, included this response from a spokesperson from a British Holocaust-education group: “Denial of the Holocaust is a virulent form of anti-Semitism. It is not only deeply offensive to Holocaust survivors but to any right-minded human being.” Absent any response in the Times story, the aura of “impartiality” created by calling the likes of David Duke “scholars” begins to seem like partiality.
Where is Ben Hecht?