Tuesday, April 05, 2005

C-SPAN plays the fool

Though it no doubt would like to have put the controversy behind it, C-SPAN's Sunday broadcast of its BookTV program on Deborah Lipstadt's book on her ordeal by libel trial with Holocaust denier David Irving wound up only demonstrating that the concerns over its highly questionable approach were indeed well grounded.

The chief guest on the program was Washington Post reporter T.R. Reid, who, as noted earlier, was probably not the best-informed "expert" the program could have featured. As Reid himself told the New York Sun, he has not read Lipstadt's book.
"I haven’t read her book. I told them that. I told C-SPAN I hadn't read the book," the reporter said. "They asked me to come and talk about a trial."

Why, one must ask, did a program about books ask Reid to come talk about a trial?

Moreover, he did not actually cover the trial, at least not in the traditional sense. Usually, covering a trial requires being there for most if not every session; he resisted reporting on it at all, did no pre-reporting on the case, and appears not to have been in court for many (if not most) of the days the trial was in session. He did not even file a story on the case until after the judge began deliberating, and then filed only one further report after the verdict was announced.

Even the one bit of exclusive reporting he was able to claim -- an interview with Irving the morning before the verdict was announced -- was extraordinarily slipshod. In the interview, Irving told Reid he expected to lose; but as Lipstadt's book makes clear, all the major parties in trial, including Irving, had been informed of the verdict the night before. So Irving was only telling Reid something he already knew. Reid failed to mention this, perhaps out of ignorance.

The BookTV interview reflected these shoddy foundations, revealing lack of a clear understanding of the issues at stake in the trial. Reid, for instance, described Irving as having said in his opening statement that no one denies that the Holocaust happened -- and therefore, Reid suggested, this was not really about "Holocaust denial."

That is, of course, an extraordinarily disingenuous -- not to mention absurdly credulous -- description of the matter. "Holocaust deniers" don't deny that many thousands of Jews and other "undesirables" were exterminated by Nazi Germany; what they deny is the scope and magnitude of those atrocities, as well as many of the essential mechanics of how the Holocaust occurred.

The Wikipedia entry on Holocaust denial explains this rather clearly:
Holocaust deniers prefer to be called Holocaust revisionists. Most people contend that the latter term is misleading. Historical revisionism is the reexamination of accepted history, with an eye towards updating it with newly discovered, more accurate, and/or less biased information. Broadly, it is the approach that history as it has been traditionally told may not be entirely accurate and should be revised accordingly. Historical revisionism in this sense is a well-accepted and mainstream part of history studies. It may be applied to the Holocaust as well, as new facts emerge and change our understanding of its events.

... Holocaust deniers make all or most of the following claims:

1. There was no specific order by Adolf Hitler or other top Nazi officials to exterminate the Jews.

2. Nazis did not use gas chambers to mass murder Jews. Small chambers did exist for delousing and Zyklon-B was used in this process.

3. The figure of 5 to 6 million Jewish deaths is an irresponsible exaggeration, and that many Jews who actually emigrated to Russia, Britain, Israel and the United States are included in the number.

4. Many photos and lots of film footage shown after World War II was specially manufactured as propaganda against the Nazis by the Allied forces. For example, one film, shown to Germans after the war, of supposed Holocaust victims were in fact German civilians being treated after allied bombing of Dresden. Pictures we commonly see show victims of starvation or Typhus, not of gassing.

5. Claims of what the Nazis supposedly did to the Jews were all intended to facilitate the Allies in their intention to enable the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and are currently used to garner support for the policies of the state of Israel, especially in its dealings with the Palestinians.

6. Although crimes were committed, they were not centrally orchestrated and thus the Nazi leadership bore no responsibility for the implementation of such a policy.

7. Historical proof for the Holocaust is falsified or deliberately misinterpreted.

8. There is an American, British or Jewish conspiracy to make Jews look like victims and to demonize Germans. Also, it was in the Soviets' interest to propagate wild stories about Germany in order to frighten related nations into accepting soviet rule (Poland, Czechoslovakia, etc.). The amount of money pumped into Israel and reparations from Germany alone give Israel a strong incentive to maintain this conspiracy.

9. The overwhelming number of biased academics and historians are too afraid to actually admit that the Holocaust was a fiction; they know they will lose their jobs if they speak up.

10. In any event, the Holocaust pales in comparison to the number of dissidents and Christians killed in Soviet gulags, which they usually attribute to Jews.

Irving himself makes most of these claims, and in fact did so during the course of the trial.

Irving, for instance, has frequently argued that the common estimate of the numbers of Jews killed (between 5 and 6 million) is grossly inflated. In court testimony in 1988, on behalf of another Holocaust denier, Ernst Zundel, he gave a base figure of 100,000 -- though in recent years he has upgraded that figure to 1 million.

Irving's rationale for these figures is extraordinarily revealing: Since many millions of the Jews who died in Nazi death camps actually succumbed to disease and starvation, he does not include them in his tally of people "killed." Apparently, in order to qualify as a Holocaust victim, one had to have been either gassed or shot. He also, of course, wholly bought into Fred Leuchter's phony claims that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz.

The worst part of Reid's description of the trial was his failure to explain the many historical facets that emerged, particularly the testimony of other historians that laid bare the utter poverty of Irving's methodology. He regaled the TV audience with quaint details about the courtroom setting and the appearances of the bewigged barrister, solicitors, and judge -- but seemed incapable of describing some of the key historical points involved.

Many of these would have made clear to both his readers and C-SPAN's viewers just how completely off the wall is Irving's approach to history. A prime example: While cross-examining historian Christopher Browning, Irving compared Hitler's original plan for dealing with the Jews -- a project to ship the entirety of European Jewry off to the island of Madagascar, where they could be supervised by the SS -- to the creation of the Israeli state:
Q. [Irving] In what way is Madagascar a fantastic plan?

A. [Browning] Fantastic in the sense that one is bizarre, the notion that you could take 4 million Jews and put them on ships and send them to Madagascar, and that anything other than the vast bulk of them would die under the conditions of being dumped into the jungle of Madagascar. Even that a plan that clearly in its implications involved vast decimation, they still talked in these words of resettlement.

Q. Is this not exactly what happened with the state of Israel? Millions of these people were taken and dumped in Israel, so to speak, although they did it voluntarily? It was an uprooting and a geographical resettlement.

Reid also was content to characterize the bulk of Irving's "Holocaust denial" as consisting of a claim he actually does make: that Hitler himself was unaware of the mass murder operation his underlings had set into motion. This is, of course, only a small portion of the distortions and falsehoods which he promotes.

The rest of the BookTV program was equally slipshod, and in its entirety it was clear that the producers were simply out of their depth in their handling of this matter.

At her blog, Lipstadt commented:
1. I wish CSpan had just admitted that they made a mistake from the outset and had not claimed that they were intending to just show a few clips of Irving. CSpan is an important national institution. It gets people to read and think about books. I have no desire to fight with CSpan, but they should have been more honest about how they messed up from the outset.

2. I wish TR Reid, who usually is a pretty careful journalist, had refamiliarized himself with the basic facts of the case before agreeing to talk about it. The case was not about whether Irving says Hitler knew about the Holocaust. It's about whether this man denies the most basic facts of the Holocaust and he does.

3. Finally, I was not trying to deny Irving a right to speak. I was simply refusing to be pushed into a debate which is no debate and with someone who is a proven liar. How can you debate a liar?

4. Never, in all the years I have been watching CSpan, have I seen a policy towards "balance." Why here?

That may be the most troubling question of them all.

C-SPAN has since issued a statement saying it regrets using the word "balance" to describe its plans, calling the term just "internal jargon" referring to the use of other voices.

Right. That would explain why no other book has ever been handled by either BookTV or its predecessor, BookNotes, in this fashion. In every previous broadcast of both shows, it has simply let the author come on and talk about his or her book. Why not Lipstadt?

Regrets about terminology notwithstanding, C-SPAN's approach to this subject makes clear that it has a great deal to learn about how extremists like Holocaust deniers operate. They count on the ignorance of those unfamiliar with their tactics to handle them "fairly" -- which is to say, to treat their lies as though they merely represent another viewpoint, and thereby spread their vicious falsifications into the mainstream,. Sunday's broadcast was a classic case of this.

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