The Media Today

Q&A: Ann Cooper on the AP in Nazi Germany and the politics of war reporting

January 24, 2024
A file photo shows Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, Lieutenant of the Reserve in the German Air Force, wearing a Nazi uniform, taking Louis P. Lochner, chief of the Berlin bureau of the Associated Press and 1939 Pulitzer Prize winner, in his car out to the airport. (AP Photo/File)

In 2016, seventy-one years after the end of World War II, Harriet Scharnberg, a German historian, published a report alleging a shocking wartime collaboration: during Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, she wrote, the Berlin bureau of the Associated Press not only bowed to Nazi censorship—agreeing to conditions including the omission of material perceived as “calculated to weaken the strength of the Reich abroad or at home”—but itself collaborated with the Nazi propaganda ministry. One of four photographers employed by the AP in Berlin, Franz Roth, worked for a propaganda division of the SS, Scharnberg found. And photos from the AP’s archives were used in anti-Semitic literature, including a widespread pamphlet called Der Untermensch (“The Subhuman”).

Until Scharnberg’s report, these details had largely been forgotten. “Everybody at the AP kind of looked around at each other and said, Did you know about this?” Ann Cooper, coauthor of the forthcoming book Newshawks in Berlin: The Associated Press and Nazi Germany, told me recently. “And they didn’t.” (At the time, the agency denied ever having “collaborated” with the Nazis.) Cooper’s late husband, Larry Heinzerling, and Randy Herschaft, both veteran AP journalists, were tasked with investigating Scharnberg’s report; in the process, they discovered extensive records detailing the AP’s wartime operations, and ultimately decided to write a book about them. After Heinzerling died in 2021, Cooper—herself a journalist, who served as NPR’s Moscow bureau chief during the last years of the Cold War and who taught at Columbia Journalism School—worked with Herschaft to complete the manuscript. It will be published by Columbia University Press in early March. 

Newshawks in Berlin delves into choices the AP made in reporting from Nazi Germany, not least the decision to stay inside the country (until the US entered the war) despite strict censorship. Today, foreign journalists have greater power to report remotely on dictatorships and war zones thanks to a preponderance of digital evidence—though this type of coverage remains highly fraught. Last week, I spoke with Cooper about war coverage then and now, the challenges faced by journalists under repressive regimes, and why field reporting is still irreplaceable. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

YRG: The book discusses the AP’s decision to submit to Nazi censorship in order to keep journalists in the country during World War II. What did you learn about that decision? How relevant do you think this compromise is today, given how much more material now reaches the public directly from citizens using social media?

AC: In Nazi Germany in the thirties, there were a number of foreign correspondents who left Berlin. They said, This is untenable. We can’t report anything meaningful anymore. But when you left Germany at that point, that was it—you really couldn’t report anymore. So Louis Lochner, the bureau chief of the AP in Berlin, said, The AP has to be here. Yes, there are limits. Yes, we do have to self-censor. But somebody’s got to be here on the ground. We serve something like twelve hundred newspapers in the United States. If we leave, there will be no independent information coming out at all.

When Nazi Germany invaded Poland, the only way [reporters] could be on the front line would be to essentially embed with the German military, which of course restricted what you could see and do. Lochner got a lot of flak for going on these escorted tours. But he could also see, for example, lines of downtrodden Polish refugees abandoning the towns that had been taken over by the Nazis. So from his point of view, there was value to doing that reporting. Lochner held on to that argument up until the point where the US and Germany were at war and all the remaining foreign correspondents were rounded up and held for about five months before they were allowed to leave Germany as part of an exchange. 

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Journalists are still having to figure out how to work within the constraints of dictatorship. When Russia made its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, there was a flurry of new restrictions and new laws. Foreign correspondents as well as independent Russian journalists fled the country, judging that they really could no longer do their jobs there. We’ve seen some foreign correspondents go back, taking the risk, but we’ve also seen what happened to Evan Gershkovich of the Wall Street Journal—he went back and has now been in prison for months, accused of espionage. The difference today is, yes, you can leave, and thanks to social media, the internet, YouTube, you can continue to report to some extent. It’s still not the same, [but] it’s important to be on the ground to do what you can. The key thing is always to be transparent about what the conditions and limitations were. 

It’s also interesting that Nazi Germany felt it had some incentive to allow the AP to continue to report at all. What do you think was in it for them, in allowing reports to continue to come out of Berlin?

There apparently were officials within the Nazi regime who believed that having reporting from Germany would feed the anti-war sentiment in the United States [and thus might discourage the US from getting involved in the war]. There was an argument: Let’s leave at least these wire services or journalists who are not sort of wildly anti-Nazi. But then, as repressions got worse and they were still getting reported to some degree, that argument fell apart. By the time the US and Germany were at war against each other, they were not going to allow any correspondents to remain there.

Is there anything you think that the general historical memory has gotten wrong in its analysis of foreign coverage of Nazi Germany? 

We didn’t find big subjects that were left completely unreported—for example, the first chapter is about how Kristallnacht was reported in print and in photos in 1938. For some time, AP photos were pretty much the only photographic evidence of what had happened. There was steady reporting about the Nazi targeting of Jews—first with legal restrictions and violent attacks, and then concentration camps and ghettos, and eventually death camps and the “final solution.” I don’t think that that has been fully recognized in some of the critiques about how the press covered Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. 

The problem was that getting independent verification was extremely difficult in that age. That’s a big difference between then and now, because now it’s hard to imagine that there wouldn’t somehow be photos, videos, social media posts, and things like that. Maybe some of them are false, but we have the tools to verify that information. For example, in Ukraine it has been easier to verify evidence of alleged war crimes. That’s evidence that the same journalist covering Nazi Germany just wouldn’t have had. And so without [the ability to verify], many journalists were very cautious in what they did report. The stories were just so beyond belief—just so far out there—[that they thought] Without more solid evidence, how can I really believe that? But on the other hand, the fact that Jews were being targeted, that they were being killed, that they were being beaten up, their property confiscated—all of that was reported all along the way. The AP and others wrote stories about how two million European Jews had already been killed, and that Hitler’s goal was to eliminate European Jewry by the end of 1942. This is long before the end of the war. 

Some of the very first eyewitness reports of the final stage of the Holocaust—the executions and death camps—were actually written in Soviet media, some of which were rewritten by AP, giving credit, obviously. Others were written by foreign correspondents, including from the AP, who were taken [to the sites] by the Red Army, including Majdanek, the first of the death camps to be liberated in Poland. They liberated Auschwitz. This all happened before the spring of 1945, when the US and the Brits, coming from the west, liberated the camps at Buchenwald, which is often remembered as the first time that we actually could see what the camps looked like and what happened in them. But it was not the first time. Those stories were out there and they ran in US newspapers. 

You wrote in the foreword to the book that, no matter what journalists report, its impact still depends on the willingness of policymakers to engage. While working on this book, what did you learn about the significance and potential impact of war reporting? 

I think if you take the attitude We’re not going to report this because it’s not going to make any difference, then what’s the point of journalism? You have to report as accurately and as carefully as possible. But when you’re looking at that reporting—where it’s landing and how it’s being received—you have to look at context. And one of the elements of context that I think gets short shrift in some of the critiques of the coverage of Nazi Germany is that, in this country, there was a lot of anti-Semitism and there was a lot of anti-immigrant feeling in those years. There were public opinion polls taken after Kristallnacht in 1938 that showed the American public was horrified by what happened. They saw AP pictures of the smoldering synagogue, the damage that was done to the property. At the same time, the American public did not turn around and say: And therefore, we should be allowing more German Jews into this country to rescue them from what’s happening in Germany. So yes, they read the stories, they reacted to the stories, but it didn’t necessarily change public opinion to increase pressure for a change in public policy.

The AP is also not a publisher. Stories went out on the wire. Twelve hundred or so news organizations received them, and each made its own decision on whether to run the story or where to run the story—maybe one story would be on page one in Seattle, Louisville, and Birmingham, but maybe not in San Francisco. There were plenty of other stories that were played in very different ways in different places, or not played at all. So that becomes much more complex in trying to evaluate the AP and what American readers saw of its stories.

What do you think the AP’s biggest mistakes were in reporting on the war?

I hesitate to use the word mistakes. We wanted to tell this story as it unfolded and reveal what we could about how decisions were made and why they were made. I think the decision that is the most subject to criticism and attack was the AP’s decision to leave its German-registered photo operation functioning through the Nazi era. They had to dismiss their Jewish employees in that office [because of German laws]. The AP did help those Jewish employees leave Germany, and all of them survived the Holocaust. But the photo operation continued with this highly questionable arrangement of exchanging photos with the German government throughout the war. There were AP German photographers who worked for SS propaganda companies while they were also earning staff or freelance salaries from the AP. People said that that was essentially the AP collaborating with the Nazi government. And it is true: AP photos were used in anti-Semitic publications within Nazi Germany. We have some examples in there and they’re unsavory, to say the least.  

At the end of the war, there were two US military investigators who unraveled the whole operation. Those two investigators wrote a report suggesting that serious consideration should be given to charging the AP with trading with the enemy. That never happened. It could be that the higher-ups looked at that and said, There really isn’t strong evidence here to make a charge like that, or it could have been We’re so overrun with so many other more nefarious crimes. We’re going to leave that. We don’t know for sure why there were never any formal charges, but there was certainly some consideration of it. 

What lessons do you think journalists today can take from your book?

I think it’s instructive to read about how these journalists, both those on the ground and their editors, wrestled with these issues. For example, a lot of journalists covering today’s conflict between Israel and Hamas are accused of bias and misrepresenting things. The same thing happened during the Nazi era and during World War II—Louis Lochner [the bureau chief] was often accused of being pro-Nazi. And there were some things he wrote where you can see why [some people] thought he was being a little overenthusiastic, shall we say. In 1940, there was even a group of editors in the Chesapeake Bay area who voted unanimously to censure the AP Berlin bureau for its reporting on the blitzkrieg. But in fact, what they were censuring was truthful reporting. You can still find examples of that today, where journalists are reporting: This is what happened. But people don’t necessarily like what happened, and it ends up with journalists being blamed for somehow skewing the story.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, the threat of mass layoffs that had been looming over the LA Times became a reality. The paper said that it would cut at least a hundred and fifteen staffers, and started to do so; the Washington bureau, which lost its two top staffers, Kimbriell Kelly and Nick Baumann, was particularly hard hit, as were the photography and sports departments and journalists who covered underrepresented communities. The paper’s union said that young journalists of color were disproportionately affected by the cuts, and accused bosses of reneging on their pledges to diversify the paper’s staff; NBC has more details. Jared Servantez, a news editor, said that he and other staffers were laid off “in an HR zoom webinar with chat disabled, no q&a, no chance to ask questions.”
  • Yesterday was a brutal day elsewhere in the media business, too. Time magazine laid off staffers—the number of those affected has not been confirmed, though CNN reports that it stands around thirty—as, reportedly, did National Geographic. Meanwhile, more than four hundred staffers at publications owned by Condé Nast walked off the job for the day in protest of anticipated layoffs at the company and bosses’ handling of that process. The staffers timed their strike to coincide with the release of this year’s Oscar nominations and picketed on a red carpet outside Condé’s offices. Per Variety, Anne Hathaway walked out of a Vanity Fair photoshoot in solidarity with the Condé union.
  • The New Hampshire primary was yesterday, too. Ahead of time, Nikki Haley, who was perceived as needing a strong finish to take the fight to the GOP frontrunner, Donald Trump, pledged to fight on no matter the result, and tweaked the press for writing her off. Haley got off to a strong start, winning all six voters in Dixville Notch, a township famed for its early voting, in the presence of droves of reporters—though in the end, Trump won the state comfortably. In the (unofficial) Democratic primary, a write-in push for Joe Biden won, as his challenger Dean Phillips failed to profit from “Bored Reporter Syndrome.”
  • Over the weekend, Israel’s Channel 12 reported that the wife of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had engineered the imminent dismissal of Eylon Levy, a spokesperson who has represented the government in international media since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, due to his past criticisms of Netanyahu’s administration. Channel 12 has since reported that Levy will remain in post after its story triggered outrage, though his media appearances have reportedly been scaled back; the Times of Israel has more.
  • And—in modern-day news about the AP and its war coverage—the agency was nominated for an Oscar for the first time in its history. 20 Days in Mariupol—a film shot by Mstyslav Chernov during the siege of that city in the days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and co-produced by the AP and PBS’s Frontline—will compete in the “Documentary Feature” category. The AP’s Jake Coyle has more details.

ICYMI: Is Ukraine’s information war turning on its own journalists?

Yona TR Golding is a CJR fellow.