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Journalism’s ‘Bad Guy’ Problem



Remnants of the Berlin Wall remain on display outside the Topography of Terror, a museum that stands where the headquarters for the Gestapo once stood. Photo by Kate Wilkinson

BERLIN—The FASPE program deals a lot with big numbers. Six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust. Ninety percent of Poland’s 3.3 million Jews dead. Overall, 14 million people killed in Eastern Europe during the Second World War. We’ve been overwhelmed by these and other numbers. As we’ve been diving deeper into the Final Solution, however, I’ve started to realize that you can’t always look for generalizations to help you fathom numbers. In particular, you can’t slot people into categories or typecast everyone as either being good or evil.

This was really clear on Friday, our last day in Berlin, when four of the FASPE fellows presented profiles of journalists for our discussion of “dilemmas in the newsroom.” As the day wore on at the Topography of Terror museum, we found ourselves asking questions about everything from the verification of Holocaust survivor testimony, to whether Glenn Greenwald’s bombastic approach to reporting the documents leaked by Edward Snowden has had a positive or negative effect on curtailing government secrecy.

One presentation was a profile of Washington Post journalist Gene Weingarten, given by Martine Powers. While Weingarten (a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner) is well known for his work as a humor columnist, he has also been praised for pieces that are decidedly more serious. Weingarten’s 2009 feature “Fatal Distraction” examines the lives of parents who, after mistakenly leaving their children in the back seat of a car on a hot day, return to find that the child has died from “hyperthermia,” or overheating.

The reaction many people have to these incidents is to say, “What terrible parents. How could someone do such a thing?” There’s a tendency to categorize these people as monsters who are different from the rest of us, and in fact Weingarten does mention that some parents whose children had died from hyperthermia had a history of neglect. All of the people interviewed for “Fatal Distraction,” however, do not fit neatly into the “bad character” mold.

One of his subjects, Miles Harrison, was a “diligent businessman and a doting, conscientious father” before he forgot to drop his toddler off at daycare one day before work. His son, Chase, was left for nine hours in the backseat of Harrison’s car on the last, hot day of summer. At the hospital, Harrison was “virtually catatonic… his eyes shut tight, rocking back and forth, locked away in some unfathomable private torment.” It’s a reaction we’d all have to making the same discovery.

The story made readers question whether it’s possible for any of us to become “monsters.”

While not an exact parallel, the question of the human capacity for wrongdoing is an important topic that we’ve considered on multiple occasions this week. The group has often questioned how it was possible for the terrible things that happened under Nazi rule to occur, and why seemingly normal civilians across Europe could be convinced to take part in excluding former friends from their social lives, smashing the windows of businesses they had previously shopped in, or identifying neighbors who fit the profile of those to be deported.

In studying the Holocaust I’ve been confronted by the fact that many didn’t speak up about the persecution of Jews and other victims as they faced deportation and genocide. It’s easy to demonize entire populations who witnessed these events, such as Catholic Poles or non-Jewish Hungarians, and implicate them in the Holocaust. In an earlier seminar on Friday however, we heard from Andie Tucher, a FASPE journalism faculty member, about Jerzy Kozinski, who in 1965 released a terrifying memoir of his suffering as a Jew at the hands of Catholic Poles during the Holocaust. His book, The Painted Bird, was subsequently shown to be a fraud, and it was revealed that a Catholic Polish family had actually harbored Kozinski’s family.

Kozinski’s book fed into the standard narrative that all Catholic Poles either remained silent or participated in the annihilation of the Jewish population.

From Kozinski’s fabrication we learned a greater truth, just as we did from the Weingarten presentation—a journalist can’t typecast any group as a monolithic entity. Just because some non-Jewish Polish civilians assisted Nazis during the Holocaust, it doesn’t mean that everyone did or that those who were silent agreed with what was happening to Polish Jews.

Likewise, just as Weingarten showed in “Fatal Distraction,” not everyone associated with the same terrible event is by association an evil person.

By extension, we must consider that the vulnerability of the human mind to manipulation is a terrifying concept, especially in the context of what happened in Nazi-occupied territories in the 1930s and 1940s. I’ve tended to distance myself from most of the participants I’ve learned about, whether high-ranking or civilian, convinced that I could never be capable of standing by in the midst or wrong-doing or in participating in egregious acts that harm other human beings.

But the more I’ve learned about the Holocaust, I’ve realized there wasn’t a particular day that seemingly normal people snapped and decided to do horrible things, or that it was easy to silent. There was a series of events and manipulative actions that eventually led people to go against their morality.

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