Did the Associated Press, the venerable American agency that is one of the world’s biggest news providers, collaborate with the Nazis during World War II? A report and new counter-report on this subject offer a few striking lessons—not just for students of history but for anyone concerned with the way news coverage shapes our perception right now.
A paper last year by the German historian Harriet Scharnberg titled “The A and P of Propaganda” and published in Studies in Contemporary History makes the case that beginning in the mid-1930s, the AP’s photo office in Germany made compromise after compromise to keep reporting under Nazi rule, obeying successive orders from the Hitler regime until it ended up as a Nazi information arm in all but name. Remaining in Berlin after its competitors departed in 1935 allowed the AP to serve as a “key channel” for German propaganda, she wrote, an arrangement the New York-based agency was eager to preserve—even if it meant removing all of its Jewish photographers in keeping with Nazi race laws, for example, and even if it meant issuing a statement to the official SS magazine swearing that the photo bureau was pure Aryan.
In the Nazi years, according to Scharnberg, the AP was selling German images in the United States and selling images from the United States in Germany, allowing photographs of American Jews and others to be used in some of the vilest racial propaganda produced by the Nazi state. The AP was, for example, the “leading supplier” of images for a propaganda book called The Jews in the USA, and in third place among suppliers of photos for the book The Subhuman.
Eventually, Scharnberg claimed, the line between the AP’s German photo operation and the Nazi regime effectively ceased to exist—even as the Nazis pursued projects like the concentration camp at Dachau, which opened in 1933, and the “euthanasia” of disabled children, which began in the summer of 1939.
What did the AP decide to cover, and how? Well, the head of AP’s picture service in Berlin went on to be an official Nazi photo censor. If AP photos from the German advance into Poland and Russia offered an image of the war that didn’t show things like the organized murder of tens of thousands of Jews and others behind the lines by the Einsatzgruppen, it was perhaps because the photos were taken by people like Franz Roth—who was, we learn from Scharnberg’s report, simultaneously an “AP photographer, SS-Oberscharführer (senior squad leader) and photojournalist in the SS Propaganda Company (SS-PK).” In his SS role, Roth took propaganda images showing Soviet prisoners as ugly human specimens—and AP, in turn, “received exclusive rights to the propaganda photos,” which were published in newspapers in Atlanta and Los Angeles.
While claiming to be covering Germany, the historian argued, the AP photo operation was, in fact, engaged in an illusion of coverage crafted in partnership with the Nazi regime. Instead of reporting on the reality of life under the regime, the AP—blinded and hobbled by its accommodations and relationships—helped obscure what was actually happening inside Germany and the way the Nazis waged war. The impact at the time is hard to determine, Scharnberg writes: “Nevertheless, it is reasonable to assume that the intuitive sympathies and antipathies of American newspaper readers were not unaffected, at least in the short-term, by pictures that usually depicted the Germans as triumphant blitzkrieg fighters and their opponents as sullen, sly military failures.”
The historian’s report was damaging enough to warrant a fascinating and deeply researched counter-report from the AP on its wartime record, published last month. The factual findings of the AP’s own report do much to amplify Scharnberg’s indictment, and in the right hands could have been an admirable exercise in self-criticism. But the AP chose to present its findings with a defensive tone that suggests that while the news organization has unearthed a great deal of information, editors there remain confused about what it all means.
Yes, we learn, the AP cooperated with the purging of Jews when competitors like The New York Times refused to accept Nazi dictates and left—but it cooperated only after “resisting,” and it turned out to be for the Jews’ own good: “AP helped them resettle safely to other countries, which allowed all of them to survive the Holocaust that soon followed.” Yes, the AP’s photo office did cooperate on a propaganda project with Das Schwarz Korps, the official SS magazine—but we should know that AP executives were “distressed” by this.
Did the AP protest the use of its photos in propaganda that fueled genocide? “To date, no records have surfaced to suggest AP objected to such practices at the time,” the report admits. But—yes, this admission is actually followed by a “but”—we should be reassured that rules about handling such cases were changed in the 1960s. Had the AP protested at the time, the report explains, it could have lost access in Germany, and moreover: “Termination of the photo service going to German subscribers would also have cost AP some revenue.” (An American in charge of the photo operation in Germany, we learn, considered the SS magazine “a good customer.”)
After the war, the AP rehired one of its staffers who had joined the Waffen SS and employed him until he retired in 1978. Another character connected to the AP photo operation, Helmut Laux, who was also part of the SS, preferred never to discuss his wartime activities, according to his daughter. “During his whole life,” she tells us, “he was just interested in the future, not the past.” One wonders why.
The argument in the AP’s counter-report is that while mistakes were made here and there, the big decisions were right. Whatever the cost, the AP “concluded it had to remain to provide coverage for U.S. newspapers and the American public.”
The AP’s justification for its actions is what makes the dueling reports worthy of attention, and not just from historians. Or, to quote the AP’s old associate from the SS: What’s interesting about this affair is “the future, not the past.” The choice faced by the AP in the 1930s—leave with your integrity intact, or stay and collaborate in the name of access—didn’t end with WWII, and is hardly the sole concern of the AP. It’s a question that affects most news organizations operating today, and one that is almost always answered wrong.
Western news organizations that maintain a presence in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia, for example, make compromises in return for access and almost never tell readers what those compromises are. The result, in many cases, is something worse than no coverage—it’s something that looks like coverage, but is actually misinformation, giving people the illusion that they know what’s going on instead of telling them outright that they’re getting information shaped by regimes trying to mislead them.
A good example came to light in 2014, seven decades after the moral confusion detailed in Scharnberg’s report, with the publication of a detailed exposé on the AP’s bureau in North Korea. It sounds familiar: The “bureau” in Pyongyang, wrote veteran journalist Nate Thayer, reporting for the specialist website NKNews.com, was not staffed by AP reporters from outside the country: The full-time staffers were North Koreans who were paid by AP but answered to the regime. A written agreement between the AP and the North Korean government allowed the AP to sell propaganda images, like those lovely choreographed rallies, outside the country, while the North Korean “staffers” studiously avoided subjects like mass starvation and prison camps. (The AP was unhappy with Thayer’s report and dismissed his claims, but it didn’t refute them.)
The most relevant example from my own experience as an AP correspondent in Jerusalem between 2006 and 2011 is Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas, and where the AP has a sub-bureau. Running that sub-bureau requires both passive and active cooperation with Hamas. To give one example of many, during the Israel-Hamas war that erupted at the end of 2008, our local Palestinian reporter in Gaza informed the news desk in Jerusalem that Hamas fighters were dressed as civilians and were being counted as civilians in the death toll—a crucial detail. A few hours later, he called again and asked me to strike the detail from the story, which I did personally; someone had clearly spoken to him, and the implication was that he was at risk. (After I published this detail in an essay for Tablet in 2014, the bureau chief at the time confirmed it, adding that a refusal to comply would have put our reporter’s life in danger.)
From that moment on, more or less, AP’s coverage from Gaza became a quiet collaboration with Hamas. Certain rules were made clear to the local staffers in Gaza, and those of us outside Gaza were warned not to put our Gazan staff at risk. Our coverage shifted accordingly, though we never informed our readers. Hamas military actions were left vague or ignored, while the effects of Israeli actions were reported at length, giving the impression of wanton Israeli aggression, just as Hamas wanted.
When a reporter wrote a story about Hamas censorship in the summer of 2014, editors shelved it. We were trading truth for access and providing an illusion of “coverage” that was actually propaganda—a kind all the more effective because it was not tagged “propaganda” but simply “Gaza City (AP).” You can show genuine footage of a house destroyed by an Israeli strike, but if you don’t show the Hamas fighters launching a rocket from the backyard, your report is a lie.
The news industry’s answer to this kind of criticism tends to be that reporting part of the story is better than nothing, just as the AP argued that “it was critical for AP to remain in Germany and gather news and photos during this crucial period”—even if the “news and photos” in question were shaped by the Nazis, and actively used by them to achieve strategic aims. This decision was controversial even at the time. One of the most interesting parts of the AP’s own report quotes U.S. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, criticizing the AP’s work in Germany in 1941: “I sometimes wonder,” he wrote, “whether we would not be better off without dispatches from that country if the alternative is to be fed daily doses of arsenical propaganda.”
Yet some of the people making decisions about news haven’t changed their thinking since then, even though no one today questions the true nature of the Nazi regime or the gap between those AP photos and the ones we’ve now seen from places like Dachau and Auschwitz. “It is essential to cover tyrannical regimes and other undemocratic movements, when possible from within the borders they control, in order to accurately relay what is happening inside,” Executive Editor Sally Buzbee said in a statement accompanying the new AP report. “That is what we do, without compromising AP’s independence or standards.”
But in reality, if you’re inside the borders of a tyrannical regime, you can’t “accurately relay what is happening inside.” And once you’ve established a permanent presence inside, as all three examples discussed here show, your independence and standards are compromised by definition. To obscure that fact, news organizations end up further compromising themselves.
The report on WWII is an opportunity to look again at the automatic bias in favor of “access,” and to ask if things might not be done differently. In the case of Gaza, for example, is the right choice really to have staffers inside, when their reporting can be controlled by Hamas? Or would it be more productive for the AP and others news organizations to report from outside Gaza while working sources on the inside and making use of external players (Egyptian intelligence, Israeli intelligence, Palestinian reporters in the West Bank) to give a more accurate picture of events?
Or instead of paying for an illusory “bureau” in Pyongyang and getting in bed with Kim Jong-un, why not devote that money to hiring the most knowledgeable people in South Korea and developing information from dissidents, refugees, and spies, which, in expert hands—and there are plenty at the AP’s disposal—might actually be able to yield an approximation of the truth? While these solutions are far from perfect, they’re preferable from the standpoint of news-gathering. Credible information that is explicitly presented as incomplete is far better than a distorted picture presented as reality.
In 2017, consumers of news are beset as never before with a blizzard of disinformation. There is no alternative to mainstream news sources. No Twitter feed is going to replace The New York Times or the AP. And yet much information published in established sources is unreliable, sometimes for the reasons discussed here. Many flaws and misunderstandings have crept into journalistic practice over time, like the idea that it’s permissible to collaborate with dictatorships and obfuscate about it, or that telling half the story is better than leveling with readers and admitting that your hands are tied. This renders journalism vulnerable to the claim that there is no “fake news” because it’s all fake, anyway.
The people in charge at the AP were wrong in 1935. It matters today because they and their competitors are wrong now in similar ways. It’s a good time for journalists to think deeply about the ways the profession has failed—80 years ago, two years ago, last week—and about ways to better serve a world that badly needs us to do our job.
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