On the Presumed Power of the Press

By Shira Telushkin

New York Times, January 31, 1933.

Why didn’t the press shout? In the ongoing game of victim vs. perpetrator, the press has long been placed among the accused. Why didn’t the journalists write more stories, place them higher, publish stronger headlines? Why didn’t The New York Times scream of this Jewish massacre? If only people had known, then (then!) of course they would have done something. But what? The people did know, and the press did shout, and still nobody knew how to stop evil, especially when wrapped in the mechanics of war. How does a shouting press and a terrorized, weeping American public stop the Holocaust? With their knowledge and their outrage? Their tears and their prayers? Please. But we could have bombed the railroad tracks to Auschwitz! That’s true. I fault the press, perhaps, for not shouting more aggressively on that point. Or not insisting we let in more refugees. For not shouting with solutions. But all else? Shouting without instructing has never brought help. The people know, and it doesn’t matter.

Surrounding much of the FASPE journalism discussions was this question of power. As journalists, we claim much power, and it underlies all of our ethical hand-wringing. We brought about Donald Trump because we gave him too much airtime, we normalized his actions, we didn’t fact-check his claims quickly or smartly enough. If we have Richard Spencer on a show, he will infect all our listeners with his hate. By implication: If we don’t, he won’t. We believe we set the standard for American opinion, speech and rhythm. That we are capable of ruining people’s lives with a single named name. The ethics of journalism inherently assume enormous power; without it, our ethical questions would have no bite.

Does journalism lag or lead? Do we set the tone or describe it? Our profession need not assume we shape the world to claim this power. We are not activists. We don’t fight for a vision of the world. Sometimes, it seems, we fault ourselves too much because our own egos ascribe to our work more power, or more shaping power, than it’s due. I leave with the questions of where is the power of journalism located, how do we in the field misunderstand it, and what does it mean to be a powerful journalist but not an activist. This last point seems to me the most currently morally compelling.

When studying World War II, it’s hard not to question assumptions of power. Power was a question of life and death. Did anybody powerful care enough about you to demand the favors of escaping, getting the last tickets out, or obtaining visas? Brave individuals fought to help the greatest scholars, artists, scientists, and rabbis escape from Europe, even if they did not always succeed. But their only chance at life was having access to power, and I grew up with that lesson before my eyes.

Like most American Jews — indeed, it is the one thing that binds us all — the Holocaust lurks, ever present. I grew up with these stories, knowing my best chances of survival lay in getting the public to care about me. I wonder now if this is partly what drew me to writing.

It’s a fair possibility. I came to Auschwitz with a list of names on my phone, text messages from my mother of people she wanted me to look up in the book, all of Irene’s relatives who died. They’re from Romania, she reminded me. Would Irene have wanted me to be here? She never came back to Poland, and she always covered the numbers on her arm. I must have been four or five when my mother — who always had a penchant for macabre details — explained to me how Irene’s nipples froze off in the camps, and it was a miracle she was able to have children, after the experiments. I was still very young — definitely before I started grade school — when somebody told me that some women had their stomachs opened up and live cats sewn inside. Playground banter. My sister and I would sit up at night, aged six and eight, pondering how you sew a cat inside a woman’s stomach with enough skill that she would still be alive to sew her back up. Do you cut lengthwise or horizontal? How long until the cat killed her? These stories, and others, both true and false, sit in my psyche, unable to be processed or broken down. Ever lurking, the Holocaust is a frozen block of pain that fills landmines. Its sorrow just sits on the surface of the earth, like some non-degradable plastic that will outlast us all. I lug around the pain of the Holocaust like a Pandora’s box. And I am loathe to write about it too directly.

But why not open it? Nietzsche, in his The Gay Science, asks, “What do you consider most human? To spare someone shame.” The impulse to protect dignity is uniquely human. And here I am, alive and powerful, being asked to bear witness to the degradation of my fellow human beings. How horrified would Irene be to know I was writing so blithely about her nipples? I feel the weakness of the victims, their lack of power, and I do not want to look. I know how easily I would have become one of them. Doesn’t the journalist run to document human weakness? I don’t know. I keep closed the box I nonetheless carry with me everywhere. I am trying to outrun its fate. To become powerful enough that I can convince myself I am safe.

Why didn’t the press shout? The haunting title of a 2003 book, it’s a question we read, a question we hear, a question that leans heavily on the presumed power of the journalist. But journalists the world over shouted themselves hoarse, and they are doing so today. They are asking us to look, and not avert out eyes. But we don’t know what to do with our hands. We only know how to remember, and say never again.

 

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