When Nazi Germany forced thousands of Jewish scholars and professionals to flee in the 1930’s and early 1940’s, many disciplines in the United States made significant efforts to help their persecuted colleagues. One did not — journalism.

Doctors, lawyers, psychologists and musicians established committees to help colleagues who, as a result of anti-Semitic legislation, were no longer allowed to practice their profession in Germany and later in other occupied countries. American journalists established no such committees. Historians, mathematicians, sociologists, chemists and economists added European scholars to their university departments, enabling them to immigrate to the United States outside of restrictive quotas. Journalism and mass communication departments made no such hires.

When two professors tried to enlist American law schools and American journalism schools in their efforts to retrain European refugees, journalists resisted their entreaties. While 21 law schools agreed to waive tuition and admit refugees, not a single journalism school accepted refugees through the program. While lawyers raised thousands of dollars for living expenses for the refugees enrolled in law schools, newspaper publishers wouldn’t even consider such an effort. In fact, the publishers’ association refused to allow one of the professors, Harvard’s Carl Friedrich, to address their 1939 convention.

Although several factors explain this callousness toward professional brethren, who at the least were losing their livelihoods and, at the worst, their lives, one factor distinguished journalism from other professions and disciplines — the fear of a negative public response. Indeed, timidity in the face of anticipated public opposition is a recurring journalistic affliction. The news media’s participation in the rush to war in Iraq is a recent example; their refusal to help their Jewish colleagues in the 1930’s is a particularly repugnant one.

Of course, more benign explanations might account for journalists’ reluctance to become involved in the refugee issue. They might have been worried about European refugees’ lack of facility with the English language, as well as the tight job market due to the lingering effects of the Great Depression. But other professionals, who proved more welcoming, would have had similar concerns. Journalists might also have fretted about differences between American and European journalism, particularly the partisan nature of much of the European press. But again all disciplines faced challenges in acclimating refugees, and concerns about a different journalistic tradition wouldn’t explain the reluctance to retrain Europeans in American journalism.

Instead, journalists may have been stymied by what they perceived to be the public mood. Opinion polls taken in the late 1930’s indicated that a majority of Americans opposed greater immigration to the United States, and some of the opposition had anti-Semitic overtones. Journalists would have been uniquely sensitive to those sentiments. Although all disciplines had to overcome anti-Semitism, both latent and blatant, in order to help Jewish refugees, academics could operate within the ivory tower, and other professionals needed to placate only their own constituents, not the public at large. Responding to public concerns, however, is built into the practice of journalism. To avoid appearing to take sides in what was considered a controversial issue and to avoid alienating Americans hostile to immigration and to Jews, journalists did nothing.

Journalism and Public Opinion

Journalists, both then and now, too readily allow fears of a public backlash to inhibit their actions. In the ongoing and inevitable tension between leading the public and catering to its whims, journalists lean too much toward the latter. The proliferation of how-to articles and sensationalistic stories are the most obvious contemporary manifestations of this tendency. But more insidious and less discussed is a reluctance to get too far ahead of the public on controversial issues.

The most distressing aspect of this professional tendency is that it seems to be based on little more than vague fears and lack of nerve. For journalists don’t really know what the public thinks or how it will react. Even the most refined techniques for measuring audience response can’t fully capture the complicated phenomenon of news perceptions. Not only is the audience large and varied but the very nature of the news — that it is in fact new — means the audience often doesn’t know, literally, what it wants to know. So journalists tend to react to attitudes about which they can only guess.

Moreover, journalists can project their own biases into the void and then rationalize those prejudices based on public attitudes. Given the blatantly anti-Semitic reasons a few journalism school deans gave for refusing to admit refugees in the 1930’s, it’s reasonable to conclude at least some of the reluctance to help refugees stemmed from journalists’ own prejudices. Yet journalists could avoid confronting their own anti-Semitism and its implications for both news coverage and refugee assistance by deflecting it upon the audience. Finally, in presuming an audience response, journalists too often fail to take into account the ways in which they have helped shape those very attitudes. If the press failed to report sympathetically on refugee issues for fear of a hostile public response, for example, it is not surprising that an uninformed public remained hostile to those refugees.

Whatever the prevailing mood, journalists abrogate their central responsibility when they allow fear of a negative public reaction to shape their actions. Knowing more than the public and communicating that information is what it means to be a journalist. Journalists therefore must lead, particularly on issues where it’s all too easy for prejudice to dominate the public discourse.

In the 1930’s, journalists failed in that responsibility and, ironically, may have lagged behind public attitudes. When aid groups first began helping Jewish academics and professionals, they shunned publicity for fear of attracting attention and hostility. By the late 1930’s, however, they routinely issued press releases touting their successes. The lawyer retraining group even crowed about the "excellent accounts in The Boston Globe and other papers" that its announcements received. But the very profession that was publishing those stories was simultaneously refusing to hire or help retrain its own persecuted colleagues.

Laurel Leff, an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University, is the author of "Buried by The Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper," published by Cambridge University Press. She worked for 18 years at The Wall Street Journal and The Miami Herald.

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