Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 21 March 2024


Propaganda On Deadline

Newshawks in Berlin

By Larry Heinzerling and Randy Herschaft

Columbia, 400 pages, $30

As the world around us grows more intolerant and repressive, Louis Lochner and the wartime AP offer a pungent—and pressing—lesson in how not to practice journalism in the shadow of tyrants. The AP’s chapter in Hitler’s Germany was a nadir in American journalism.

On March 10, 1933, weeks after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany, a Jewish lawyer named Michael Siegel went to police headquarters in Munich to lodge a complaint on behalf of a co-religionist whose store had been trashed by storm troopers a day earlier. The cops, now overseen by Hermann Goering, were in no mood to pay heed to an uppity Jew: They took the lawyer to a basement and beat him to a pulp, then marched him down the streets—his pants cut off at the knees—with a placard dangling from his neck. It said: “I will never again complain to the police.”

A local photographer captured the lawyer’s humiliation, and the images flooded American newspapers. They’d been purchased and syndicated by a photo service owned by the publisher William Randolph Hearst, much to the chagrin of the bosses at the Associated Press, a storied news agency based in New York. The AP supplied news to more than 1,200 U.S. newspapers, more than half of which also subscribed to its photo service—a service which had, in this instance, let its customers down. “Nazi attacks on Jews play big,” the AP executives said in a cable to their Berlin bureau, expressing consternation that their own team had been “ licked” on the photo scoop by Hearst.

As Larry Heinzerling and Randy Herschaft tell us in “Newshawks in Berlin”—a gripping, enraging account of how the AP functioned, often dishonorably, in Nazi Germany—the agency’s member newspapers had a circulation of 34 million. The AP was, in wartime, “the single most important news source for most Americans about the Nazi menace.”

The remonstrative cable from the AP’s HQ had been addressed to Louis Lochner, the Berlin bureau chief, who’d been offered the photos of the lawyer’s public shaming but had refused to buy them. Lochner, born in 1887 to German parents in Springfield, Ill., had been appointed to the Berlin bureau in 1924, ascending to the chief’s position four years later. He remained fused to that post like a limpet until his expulsion by the Nazi government in early 1942—five months after Hitler declared war on the U.S.—along with the other American journalists still left in Germany.

Asked to explain his rejection of the unquestionably newsy pictures, Lochner, write the authors, “responded with what was to become a common refrain throughout his remaining years” as the AP’s man in Germany: “It is more important to remain in the field here . . . than to risk having our whole organization destroyed by publishing a picture to which the regime in power objects.” He told his bosses, for good measure, that they should be “darned glad we did NOT send” the pictures, for “we’d today be out of business in Berlin.”

Lochner was admitting—unabashedly—that he and his bureau had indulged in self-censorship, a practice that is (write Messrs. Heinzerling and Herschaft) “familiar to journalists who work in authoritarian regimes all over the world.” Such regimes impose laws that dictate what can and can’t be said or depicted, buttressed by “invisible red lines” that, if crossed, can result in expulsion or worse, including imprisonment—as happened to Evan Gershkovich of this newspaper’s Moscow bureau. Evan was imprisoned by Vladimir Putin in 2023 for his rigorously professional (but, to Mr. Putin, unforgivably unflattering) coverage of Russia.

Messrs. Heinzerling and Herschaft—both veteran AP journalists—contend that Lochner and the agency made a “Faustian bargain.” Their distaste and disapproval, while expressed with restraint, is palpable throughout the book, as well as in the foreword by Ann Cooper, a professor emerita at the Columbia Journalism School and Heinzerling’s widow. (Her husband succumbed to cancer after the first draft was done, and she helped Mr. Herschaft finish and polish the book.)

Like other thuggish regimes, the Nazis tried to control the news coming out of Germany. The AP bureau in Berlin was eager not to offend.

There is no doubt that Lochner is the villain of the narrative. His wife was German and his father-in-law a judge of Germany’s Supreme Military Court; his social ties among the Berlin elite were extensive. It would be no exaggeration to say that he’d gone profoundly native, a view that is supported by his decision to live in Germany in his retirement after the war. Among his many compromises, made to keep the AP bureau open, was a willingness to accede to the law that dictated that no Jew could work in Germany as a journalist.

Lochner’s morally questionable resolution of morally urgent questions was enabled and reinforced by Kent Cooper, the AP’s general manager in New York. Cooper believed that journalists abroad were “guests” in their countries of assignment whose responsibilities included respecting local laws. This ethically questionable position was also commercially convenient, enabling Cooper to set up—with Lochner’s enthusiastic support—a photo agency in Germany called AP GmbH.

This agency had the blessing of the Nazi regime and was staffed exclusively by Germans, many of whom were, concurrently, officers of the Waffen SS. AP GmbH supplied photos of the war—and of German life—to U.S. newspapers, with all images pre-vetted by the German censors. In other words, thanks to the AP, American readers were fed photographs that the Nazis wanted them to see. That, alongside the self-censorship in most news reports, leads us to conclude that the AP was more than a little complicit in hiding the truth of Hitler’s universe from the outside world. After all, many, if not most, American news organizations chose to pull out of Germany rather than submit to the Nazis.

As the world around us grows more intolerant and repressive, Louis Lochner and the wartime AP offer a pungent—and pressing—lesson in how not to practice journalism in the shadow of tyrants. The AP’s chapter in Hitler’s Germany was a nadir in American journalism.

Mr. Varadarajan, a Journal contributor, is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and at NYU Law School’s Classical Liberal Institute.

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