Spinning genocide, then and now

Spinning genocide, then and now

To the surprise of many, The New York Times recently published an eight-page advertising supplement sponsored by the genocidal government of Sudan, even though that regime is behind Arab militias that have been murdering and "ethnically cleansing" millions of non-Arabs in the southern Sudanese region of Darfur.

The purpose of the ad supplement was to counteract the overwhelmingly negative media attention Sudan’s government has deservedly received in recent months. The supplement quoted Sudanese Investment Minister Malik Akar Ayar saying: "The images that are being projected in the media do not present a coherent picture of Sudan in any way. Sudan is not only Darfur."

Nor was Nazi Germany only Dachau and Bergen-Belsen. But when a regime perpetrates evil, its killing centers become the symbol that attracts the most public attention, and rightly so.

The decision to run the ad supplement is especially ironic because Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff has been the leading voice in exposing the mass murder in Sudan and pressing for international action. Moreover, the Times’ own editorials have strongly urged intervention against the genocide.

Here’s how the Times’ spokesperson defended its decision to run the Sudan supplement: "We print ads that differ from our editorial position," she said. "All pages of the paper — news, editorial, and advertising — must remain open to the free flow of ideas." ("Free flow of rubbish," a rival newspaper declared.)

Interestingly, the Times articulated a more principled position back in 1993, when queried as to whether it would print an advertisement denying the Nazi Holocaust. Its ombudsman said then that it would refuse to print such an ad, because the Times’ policy is to never print anything — whether news or advertising — "that we know not to be true."

Cynics might perceive an element of consistency in the Times’ position, recalling that in the 1930s, the newspaper refused requests by Jewish organizations to stop printing ads from businesses in Nazi Germany. Publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger staunchly opposed the idea of American Jews going to battle for fellow-Jews abroad: "As a Jew, in my judgment, I have no right to cross national boundary lines in a manner which may involve nationalism," he asserted.

Yet the Times did not always adhere to that hands-off approach when it came to advertisements from groups promoting the rescue of Jews from the Nazis. The Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, an activist lobby better known as the Bergson group, placed numerous ads in the Times urging the Allies to take action for European Jewry. With headlines such as "Action — Not Pity — Can Save Millions Now" and "Time Races Death — What Are We Waiting For?," the ads played a key role in raising public awareness of the mass killings. But the Times insisted on deleting from the ads what it considered "inflammatory, exaggerated, and misleading statements" that went "too far" in criticizing Allied policy.

"Sometimes [we would have to delete] a sentence, a phrase, a word, this and that," recalled Samuel Merlin, one of the leaders of the Bergson group. "And then at a certain point, they stopped. They said we aren’t going to take any more of your ads."

One wonders if anybody at the Times considered deleting any language from the Sudan supplement. Shouldn’t "Sudan is not only Darfur" be considered a misleading statement?

Evil regimes typically look for ways to improve their images abroad. It’s good for business, tourism, and their international standing. That’s what Sudan is trying to do, and that’s what Hitler did as well — although he didn’t need to pay for advertisements; many in the Western media did it for him, for free. To cite one of many sordid examples, the British magazine Homes & Gardens in 1938 ran a glitzy feature about Hitler’s summer home, complete with fawning descriptions of the Fuhrer playing with neighborhood children and decorating his home with own watercolor paintings.

Whether to run a controversial advertisement can be a tough call for any newspaper. It is certainly understandable that The New York Times is reluctant to violate the principle of free speech in its ads. The question, however, is whether combating genocide is a principle of equal, if not greater, importance. Sixty-one years after the liberation of Dachau and Bergen-Belsen, that concept should not be hard for the nation’s "newspaper of record" to embrace.