Theatre of Hate
How Zundel played to the weaknesses of the press
Self-confessed Nazi sympathizer Ernst Zundel stood trial in January, 1985, for publishing his view that the Holocaust was nothing but a Jewish hoax. He was later convicted of “spreading false news ” for his 32-page pamphlet entitled “Did six million really die”? But for Zundel it was well worth being tried-in return he received a nationwide media platform for his anti-Semitic statements.
Toronto’s three daily newspapers-The Toronto Star, The Toronto Sun and The Globe and Mail-all jumped on the Zundel trial bandwagon. A combination of ill-considered and inaccurate headlines, insensitivity to the implications of the stories, and the predictability of the press’s response allowed Zundel and his associates to make the most of trial coverage. The practice of journalism, which equates objective reporting with simply reciting testimony from both sides of a trial, gave a bogus legitimacy to Zundel’s views. The result was a tremendous disservice to the Jewish community and the millions who died during the Holocaust.
“The media, in reporting the trial, all too frequently shifted its attention away from the reality of the Holocaust to report uncritically on the Holocaust denial lie,” writes the Canadian Jewish Congress director of Community Relations, Manuel Prutschi. His article, “Anti-Semitism on trial,” appeared in the Bulletin, a quarterly publication of the Centre for Investigative journalism, last spring. Holocaust denial became the news story of the day while the Holocaust as historical fact faded into the background.
Prutschi says, “Coverage of the prosecution’s case tended to focus on defence cross-examination and on efforts to cast doubt on survivor and expert testimony.” He cites a Jan. 12, 1985, Globe story in which prosecution witness Arnold Friedman, an Auschwitz survivor, gave in to relentless questioning by Zundel’s lawyer and said he couldn’t prove that missing prisoners had been gassed. “The unjust impression given was that the witness had wavered in his testimony when, in fact, he stood up well throughout the cross-examination.”
Zundel’s trial, along with fears within the Jewish community regarding anti-Semitic propaganda and its effects, divided Jews into two groups with two different outlooks. Though both sides agree coverage of the trial was sensationalistic, Meir Halevi, national director of the Jewish Defence League, says the press “had to cover what was happening and did exactly that.” In his view, press coverage was weighted heavily in favor of the defence because Toronto Jews lacked the courage to play the game by Zundel’s rules; that is, the Jewish community “refused to resort to some theatrics and propaganda of our own. We couldn’t have expected anything more or less from the press. I was pleading with Jewish organizations to counter Zundel but unfortunately they were too afraid.”
In contrast, Helen Smolack, chairman of the Canadian Holocaust Remembrance Association, which initiated the charges against Zundel, believes the newspapers, not the Jewish community, were at fault. “Reporters don’t seem to have a grasp of the whole [Holocaust] situation.” If they had a thorough knowledge of the Holocaust and of the background of anti-Semitic propagandists such as Zundel, they would not have resorted to blindly reporting the claims of the defence while largely ignoring the other side, she says.
“The trial raised serious questions about traditional notions of journalistic objectivity,” wrote Kirk Makin in theColumbia Journalism Review. Makin, who covered the trial for the Globe, said the media were caught in a dilemma between diminishing the reality of the Holocaust and censorship. “Was the mere fact of reporting Zundel’s views an insult to those who had suffered in the Holocaust? Should news organizations therefore have ignored a story as significant as the trial of a man being prosecuted solely for his views?” Makin called it a no-win situation.
Yet lying beneath the objective form-reporting defence and prosecution testimony without comment-are the inherent judgments made by the papers in their decisions of what to emphasize and what to omit. These underlying judgments, which are applied to every story every day, resulted in undeserved credibility for Zundel and his followers.
Press coverage during the defence’s portion of the trial failed to put Zundel’s views in the context of historical fact and failed to point out that the trial itself was about hate literature. Because Zundel used truth as his defence, the Crown was forced to prove the reality of the Holocaust. While Toronto’s newspapers played prominently on the defence’s Holocaust denial, the hate literature issue, the point of the whole case, was shoved into the background.
Defence counsel Douglas Christie was quoted in all three papers on Jan. 12 on his cross-examination of a Holocaust survivor who had relived his memories of the smoke and smells of the crematoriums. Christie contended that it was impossible for such emissions to come from a crematorium where people were being burned. The Star‘s story, “Nazi camp survivor wrong on deaths, trial told,” and the Sun‘s “Zundel defence lawyer: ‘No smoke from Nazi crematorium,'” both gave Christie’s assertions more prominent play than the witness’s replies. This left readers with an impression that the existence of crematoriums in the death camps was in doubt.
“Lawyer challenges crematoria theory,” the Globe‘s headline on the same day, took the side of the Holocaust deniers. By running the word theory without the appropriate quotation marks, the paper condoned skepticism about the reality of the Holocaust-an event that is historically documented fact. Emphasizing Christie’s claims gave them a veneer of authenticity.
When Zundel took the stand he was quoted liberally in the Feb. 21 Star on his assertions that there were no lethal gas chambers in Nazi concentration camps and no German policy to methodically exterminate Jews. Zundel noted that a number of authors have written to the effect that “Dachau was a pleasant compound with tree-lined streets, peaceful chapels and large, efficiently run kitchens.” Although the Star story mentioned that Zundel’s testimony “contrasted sharply” with earlier prosecution evidence, the paper did not give equal weight to this evidence.
The Globe ran this headline on Feb. 6: “No gas chambers in Nazi Germany, expert witness testifies.” The same story mentioned that the judge had denied the witness, Robert Faurisson, a French professor of literature, expert status on the gas chambers. The contradiction between headline and story was far less obvious than the headline’s sensational implications.
When Ditlieb Felderer, a Swedish defence witness, produced a photograph in court of a swimming pool allegedly situated at Auschwitz concentration camp, the photo was published in the Globe, implying that the existence of the pool was a fact and that the photograph was genuine. The important information that Zundel is known as “probably the best photo retoucher in Toronto” was not in the caption, but near the end of the story.
The press’s focus on the unusual and bizarre made its response predictable and thus left the papers open to manipulation by Zundel and his lawyer. Every statement, every move that Zundel and his hard-hatted followers made was given extensive coverage. Photographs of a smiling, contented Zundel walking in and out of the courtroom, flashing his victory sign, often appeared alongside the stories. Zundel’s actions became the trademark of the trial, symbolism for his cause. To Zundel’s delight he got “a million dollars worth of publicity” he could never have attained otherwise. When Zundel appeared on the courthouse steps carrying a 12-foot cross, the Star and the Sun ran the resulting photographs.
The Globe‘s metro editor, Colin MacKenzie, admits the paper was manipulated by Zundel’s lawyer. “Doug Christie played us a little bit like a guitar in terms of the way he laid out his case,” he says. “There were some pretty had headlines. There’s no question they showed an appalling lack of sensitivity and the ignorance of a newspaper that prides itself on being fairly close to the way the world thinks.” He singles out the “crematoria theory” headline as “appalling and wrong and indefensible, so I’m not even going to bother to try.”
Of the editors interviewed at the three dailies, MacKenzie is the only one to admit having made mistakes in trial coverage. Ken MacGray, the Star‘s deputy city editor, says, “In terms of news, Zundel wasn’t treated differently than any other case. There are two sides to any story.” He discounts criticism that coverage of the case was unfair. “We presented both sides of the case, giving equal weight to the views and let the readers make their own judgments on Zundel’s guilt or innocence.”
The Sun‘s city editor, John Paton, “didn’t find any problems” with his paper’s Zundel coverage. His response to criticism is, “That’s utter bullshit. As far as when the case was going on, if anyone knows anything about Canadian law as it applies to the media, you know that you cannot comment on a case when it’s before the courts. You’re restricted to reporting what happens inside the courtroom and that’s what we did.”
Robert Martin, professor of law and journalism at the University of Western Ontario, disagrees with Paton’s interpretation of the contempt of court law. “That’s a fairy tale. To say as a general rule you can only report what is said in court is not true…. There are limitations, but there is no blanket rule that you can’t talk about anything that doesn’t happen in open court.”
Martin says it is contempt to purport to resolve issues that have to be decided in court, but there are other ways to put defence testimony in perspective. For example, an editorial discussing the restrictions of court reporting would not have legal implications. “It is not contempt to discuss the content of the law.”
Martin also says making a judgment to downplay a story, or one side of a story, would circumvent the restrictions. “The problem I had with the coverage was that it was too balanced. Giving balance to Zundel gave legitimacy to despicable opinions.”
In fact, there were no interpretive stories or commentary until after the quilty verdict was reached. Frank Jones of the Star wrote in his March 1 column that “bogus experts were accorded respect just like learned professors earnestly debating maybe the Punic wars of ancient Greece.” Although the trial was a racial-hatred case, Jones noted that “the whole impression in the headlines day after day was that these people represented a respectable school of revisionist history, concerned only with getting at the truth of distant historical events.”
In a March 1 Globe story, Kirk Makin revealed that “for several months, Mr. Zundel was listed as an editorial board member of Liberty Bell, a journal published by George Dietz, who owns what is considered to be the largest neo-Nazi publishing house in the United States.”
Sun columnist Mark Bonokoski delved into Zundel’s background, again on March 1. He disclosed that Zundel, writing under the name Christof Friedrich (his middle names) was the author of a book that was reviewed inLiberty Bell. Bonokoski related a portion of that book review: “[Friedrich] leaves no doubt. Hitler was well-loved and loved in return but the relationship between the leader and his people was not the gushy, sickly sweet effusion of an obese Jewish mother for her pimply, draft-dodging son.”
Although the editorials and interpretive stories put Zundel’s trial in better perspective, they came too late, after most of the damage was done.
As far as future coverage of racial-hatred trials is concerned, the Globe‘s MacKenzie says, “We’re not going to suspend the rules of journalism no matter what the cause.” However he says such trials will be approached with greater foresight. “We have become sensitized to the concerns of the community and to the need to deal a little carefully with Holocaust denial…. We’ll look at what we’re writing and assess if counsel is pursuing the ends of his client or using us to get publicity.”
Future racial-hatred trial coverage by the Star will not change, MacGray says. The paper will report both sides of cases, print only the testimony and do no out-of-court reporting. “Readers must decide for themselves…. It’s a basic rule of journalism and the Star won’t break the rule for any court case,” he says. Nor will the Sun, says Paton. “We will still report what goes on in any courtroom, for both sides.”
It’s ironic that the press, one of whose main purposes is to prepare society for change, is itself so little open to it. Newspaper journalists have long known-especially since the McCarthy ’50s-that printing unexamined statements can place them in the service of hatemongers. The rigid news mentality that Senator Joseph McCarthy fed upon was again in evidence in the coverage of the Zundel trial. Yet, with the limited exception of the Globe‘s MacKenzie, spokesmen for Toronto’s three big dailies weren’t even prepared to consider new approaches. Reader beware.