Almost 80 years ago, the New York Times ran on its front page a story about the death of a man from Iceland. His name was Thordur Sigursson. He was 22 years old. He died by a bullet to the stomach.
Of course, other stories made the front page that day, including Roosevelt’s effort to resolve a labor dispute and a report about a missing plan carrying the Soviet ambassador to the US, and his American counterpart. But one story in particular did not make the cut.
That day, November 14, 1941, the Times published an article with a deceptively simple headline. Titled “Goebbels Spurs Abuse for Jews,” the article reported in a flat, measured tone that, “Dr. Goebbels promulgated a new ten-point charter for the Nazi campaign against the Jews. He exhorted all Germans to harbor no sympathy for the Jews in connection with the government’s measures against them.”
The article went on to quote Goebbels, who said, “In this historical showdown every Jew is our enemy, regardless of whether he is vegetating in a Polish ghetto or delays his parasitic existence in Berlin or Hamburg, or blows the war trumpets in Washington or New York.” The article concluded with Goebbels’s own conclusion—that it was Germany’s determination to “finally finish” the Jews.
The article was printed on page 11. It was one of hundreds of stories about the murder of six million Jews in Europe that were buried on page 11, or 14, or 20, or not covered at all. All of which leaves us asking: How do we explain such a thing?
It took me years of researching and writing The Gray Lady Winked, my book about the how the New York Times’s misreporting radically alters history, to learn that there is an explanation. It is, of course, complex. It’s also grotesque. It concerns the strange, contorted beliefs of the Ochs-Sulzbergers, the dynasty (or, given that for 120 years it has handed power from male heir to male heir, the patriarchy) that has owned and controlled the New York Times for well over a century.
What I learned writing The Gray Lady Winked is that knowing the explanation doesn’t make the phenomenon easier to understand. In some ways, it makes it harder. We could discuss the warped religious ideologies of the Sulzbergers, or their trauma as German Jews, or myriad other factors. In reality, none of these explanations help us understand something as unjust and cruel and derelict of duty as the New York Times’s years-long, systematic burying of the Holocaust. Like some burned out old hulk of a building no one is going to tear down, it’s simply there.
But that fact underlines the scarier point: it is indeed still there. This week, the High Court of France snuffed out any hope for justice in the brutal, racist murder of Sarah Halimi when it held that the alleged murderer—who reportedly beat the 66-year-old woman for an hour before throwing her out her own window—could not be held culpable for the crime. There wasn’t even a trial. The reason? He’d smoked marijuana before committing his enormity. Et voila.
The miscarriage of justice is obvious. For the Jews of France, it’s nothing new. But what can we say to ourselves when we look to America’s most influential news outlet, the New York Times, and realize that, aside from one single news report about the High Court’s decision published this week, there has been no coverage of Mrs. Halimi’s murder in the five years since it took place? How do we explain such a thing?
It could be that the Times had too much news to report on the day after Mrs. Halimi’s murder, April 5, 2017, when, had it been covered, the reporting would have run. But the paper did find room to commemorate the life of a Bronx chess champion and, separately, a civil rights activist, who both died at 87. It covered the release of an Australian professor who had been detained in China. It explored whether the Chinese premier would golf with President Trump at Mar-A-Lago (he would not). And it included a report on the murder of a Muslim man in India, allegedly beaten to death by “cow vigilantes.”
But not Mrs. Halimi.
In fact, were it not for two courageous columns by Bari Weiss, the New York Times would have remained ignorant of the crime—a crime that at least possibly included a racial motivation and was part of a much larger trend that had exploded into view on numerous occasions in Paris. Again, we’re forced to ask: How do we explain such a thing?
Perhaps the answer lies in the experience of Weiss, almost the only person at the thousand-some news organization to write about Mrs. Halimi. In her resignation letter to the New York Times’s publisher, A.G. Sulzberger—great-grandson of the Sulzberger who deliberately buried the Holocaust—Weiss detailed the intolerable atmosphere of intimidation and harassment she faced at the Times for not carrying water for an ideology she did not share. A frequent comment Weiss heard about her reporting was that she “writing about the Jews again,” apparently an offense at the Times that is still not easily forgiven.
And again we’re forced to ask: How do we explain such a thing?
The Gray Lady Winked will be released May 3. It is currently available for pre-order.