A fellowship aims to teach journalists not to make mistakes of the past

Every spring a handpicked group of young journalists travels to Central Europe on a fellowship to look at how reporters and editors covered the Holocaust. The group first visits Berlin to examine the organizational and political roots of the Nazi’s “Final Solution” and then to Auschwitz to see the most infamous death camp where it was carried out.

In past years, this exercise has sometimes seemed like a luxury, an add-on for some lucky young journalists. But this year, the fellowship is more important than ever, essential even. There is a demagogue running for president of the United States, and he, too, has sought to manipulate the media in his quest for the highest office in the land. It is no wonder that one of the most-read items on The New York Times website recently was a review by Michiko Kakutani of a book called “Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939” by Volker Ullrich. The headline wasn’t subtle in its Trump allusions: “In ‘Hitler,’ an Ascent From ‘Dunderhead’ to Demagogue.”

The notion behind the spring travel fellowship is that, with few exceptions, the journalists of Hitler’s time missed the story of his rise and crimes, and that, by studying that era, young journalists can learn lessons that can be applied to today’s issues, from the refugee crisis to police brutality to the rise of demagogues.

What is interesting about the study of the World War II era journalists is that many don’t fall neatly into one category or the other, hero or villain. The issues are complex: If you simply stay in the middle and chronicle the two sides of a story, are you doing your job as a journalist? Is the responsibility to take a stand for justice limited only to extraordinary times of genocide and demagoguery? And, perhaps most important, are we living in such a time today?

I have led the program, called Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics, three times since the first trip in 2010 and have seen its impact on young journalists. Visiting places like the Reichstag in Berlin, where Hitler took power in 1933, and seeing the ruins of the gas chambers in Auschwitz leave an indelible impression. 

But one of the most effective features of the FASPE fellowship is a bit of research that each participant prepares before we leave for Europe. Each fellow is asked to undertake a study of a particular World War II era journalist. The fellows look at the journalist’s life and read his or her works. Each day on the trip, one of the fellows presents to the group on their assigned journalist. “The profiles are particularly effective,” said Thorin Tritter, the executive director of FASPE. “Our fellows see all kinds of connections between the ethical issues they faced then and today.”

History will judge the scoundrels and the heroes of today, but there is little doubt that today’s journalists are faced with reporting on distortions, lies and racist rhetoric.

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The journalists range from villains like Julius Streicher, the editor of Der Sturmer who was hanged at Nuremberg, to heroes like Varian Fry, an American journalist who was so moved by what he saw that he put down his pen and rescued more than 2,000 Jews and anti-Nazis from Vichy France, to chroniclers like the photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White.

History will judge the scoundrels and the heroes of today, but there is little doubt that today’s journalists are faced with reporting on distortions, lies and racist rhetoric. Trump has railed against Muslims, African-Americans, Mexicans, women and the handicapped. In addition, the Anti-Defamation League accused his son, Donald J. Trump Jr., of “trivializing” the Holocaust with his comments about “heating up the gas chamber,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Politico pulled together several anti-Semitic notes from the Trump campaign and ran an article with the headline: “In a Time of Trump, Millennial Jews Awaken to Anti-Semitism.” The subhead: “A new generation is experiencing an age-old hatred for the first time.”

The article chronicled everything from Trump Sr.’s tweet of an image of Hillary Clinton with a six-pointed star and a pile of cash to comments attributed to Trump’s campaign manager about “whiny” Jewish brats. And it told of the online hate speech aimed at Jewish journalists who are critical of the candidate or the campaign. As Jim Rutenberg noted in the Times, “Jew” has become an epithet. And just a few days ago the Anti-Defamation League released a major study that showed a year-long rise in anti-Semitic hate speech on Twitter directed at Jewish journalists, much of it linked to Trump supporters.

I don’t think these anti-Semitic references will be lost on next summer’s FASPE fellows. Until the program, most of them never get this close to examining the roots of the Holocaust and the life stories of the working journalists who covered that era. As we in journalism education race to keep up with rapidly changing technologies, we spend less and less time talking about journalism and history — and even less time talking about ethics. FASPE fills these lacunae in journalism education.

Telling the stories of the World War II-era journalists is a reminder of the responsibility we bear as journalists and the impact that our work and lives can have. It is also a reminder that we, too, will be judged by history. To paraphrase the popular safe-driving slogan in New York: Your choices behind the keyboard matter. That might be the most important lesson of all.


Below is a partial list of World War II era journalists that FASPE fellows have profiled:

  • Fritz Gerlich: A German newspaper editor, met Hitler three times and became actively opposed to his rule; killed in Dachau in 1934. 
  • Ruth Gruber: An American photojournalist who held both government and news jobs. She photographed 1944 Holocaust refugees coming from Europe to the U.S. and became involved in their resettlement.
  • Ben Hecht: An American playwright best known among journalists for “The Front Page.” He was an ardent Zionist and wrote a article for the American Mercury in 1943, simultaneously abridged in Reader’s Digest, that may have been the first to note the 6 million figure of imperiled Jews.
  • Noah Kliger: An influential Israeli journalist who covered the trial of Adolf Eichman in 1961. As a young man he was taken from his native France and held prisoner at Auschwitz.  
  • Edward R. Murrow: Before he achieved fame for his coverage of Senator Joseph McCarthy, Murrow was a CBS radio correspondent in Europe. He was the first reporter on the scene following the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp and vividly described the horror he found.
  • Louis Lochner: Bureau chief in Berlin for The Associated Press who was awarded the 1939 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Nazi Germany. When American entered the war in 1941, Lochner was interned by the Nazis and later released in a prisoner exchange. 
  • Oskar Rosenfeld: An Austrian-Jewish writer who was sent to Lodz ghetto in 1942 where he kept meticulous diaries of daily life. The diaries survived and have been published; Rosenfeld died at Auschwitz.
  • Jules Sauerwein: Correspondent for Paris Soir during the war who also served a stringer for the Times. Had a reputation among some as a Nazis sympathizer some of whom called his work “propaganda.” 
  • William Shirer: American journalist, worked for the Chicago Tribune before covering the war and then the Nuremberg Trials for CBS Radio; later wrote the seminal “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.”
  • Dorothy Thompson: One of the first women correspondents in Europe, she interviewed Hitler in 1931 and was later expelled from Germany for her opposition to his rule. She wrote for the Saturday Evening Post and the New York Herald Tribune.
  • Arthur Hays Sulzberger: Publisher of the Times during the war and criticized by many for ambivalence over Holocaust coverage.
  • Arthur Szyk: A Polish native, who emigrated to U.S. in 1940, became famous for his anti-Nazi cartoons, partly as a means to draw attention to the Holocaust.

At its inception, FASPE operated under the auspices of the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, located in lower Manhattan. It is now in the process of separating from the museum to become an independent 501c (3) non-profit organization. FASPE is not a faith-based program and, in fact, only a small percentage of its fellows are Jewish. The program draws Christians, Jews, Muslim and Hindus as well as people who profess no faith at all.         

There were 63 fellows last summer in all five disciplines: journalism, law, medicine, business and clergy. The dates for this summer’s journalism trip are: May 21 to June 2. The application deadline is January 5, 2017, but get started early because transcripts and references are required. For more information and the application go to: https://www.faspe.info/apply.html.

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Ari L. Goldman is a professor of journalism at Columbia and the author of four books, including The Search for God at Harvard and Being Jewish.