Accuracy in Media

Accuracy in Media attended the New York Times annual meeting in April to press the Gray Lady over its highly controversial and erroneous reporting about a matter involving the Vatican’s response to the Holocaust.

After giving the Times many weeks to honestly come to grips with its use of a dubious memo in a major article, AIM has been forced to conclude that the paper has adopted a variation of the absurd CBS response to its Memogate scandal, in which Dan Rather was caught using a bogus document against President Bush.

Rather claimed that while the document may be questionable and hasn’t been proved to be legitimate, the CBS story was somehow accurate.

The Times matter, of course, does not involve media intervention in a presidential campaign. But it does concern a matter of great historical importance. What’s more, the Times failure to admit that its coverage was in error flies in the face of the release of a Times report, issued in May, on “Preserving Our Readers’ Trust.” The report examined ways the Times could build its credibility with readers.

AIM Associate Editor Sherrie Gossett, who addressed Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. during the question and answer session at the annual meeting, cited the January 9 New York Times story “Saving Jewish Children, but at What Cost?” by Elaine Sciolino and Jason Horowitz, and asked Sulzberger whether the Times was going to do any follow-up reporting on the story given the fact the memo in question had since been debunked as an erroneous French translation of the true Vatican directive.

Sulzberger indicated he was not familiar with the story and would follow up on it. But to our knowledge, he never did. Gossett went ahead to outline before the board the claims of the Times story, centering on a document which has since been debunked by a historian and journalist duo.

The Times story began with the claim that in October 1946, a year after the defeat of the Nazis, “[T]he Vatican weighed in” on the issue of the sheltered Jewish children with a “newly disclosed directive on the subject.” The one-page, typewritten directive that the New York Times reported on was dated Oct. 23, 1946, and was “discovered in a French church archive outside Paris.” The story relayed that the document was “made available to the New York Times on the condition the source would not be disclosed.” The Times posted an English translation of the memo on the Internet under the title “1946 Letter from Vatican.”

The Times story was sparked by a December 28, 2004 story by Italian professor Alberto Melloni, published in the Italian daily Il Corriere della Sera, entitled “Pius XII to Nuncio Roncalli: Do Not Return the Jewish Children.”

The Facts Emerge

Shortly after the Times reported the story, Italian historian Matteo Luigi Napolitano and journalist Andrea Torricelli reported that the French document was actually part of a 3-page dossier. It was attached to the true Vatican directive issued by Vatican’s Monsignor Domenici Tardini. Napolitano, known as an independent, objective scholar, is a renowned Pius XII expert and diplomatic/archival expert who teaches at the University of Viterbo and co-authors books on the wartime pope with journalist Andrea Tornielli. After their story debunking the memo broke, Italian newspapers chastised and mocked Melloni for his “hasty scoop” but we didn’t hear much of that on this side of the Atlantic. Perhaps the Times was counting on Americans not knowing about the real scoop which followed their own report.

While four points are shared by the French document and the Vatican directive, the most damning sentence in the French memo, the one stating that Jewish children who had been baptized were not to be returned to their parents, was not in the Vatican directive. It exists only in the French document as the fifth and final point. The Vatican directive deals solely with children “who no longer have living relatives” and states that “[T]hey cannot be abandoned by the Church or delivered to parties who have no right to them.” The Vatican instruction advises that each case must be reviewed individually, adding, “Things would be different if the children were requested by the relatives.” Nevertheless, neither the Corriere della Sera nor the New York Times mentioned the context within which the memo was found, its location, or the nature of the true Vatican directive it was attached to?all basics of investigative reporting and sound research.

The Times Reply

Toby Usnik, Director of Public Relations for the New York Times Company, later conferred with colleagues on the subject and issued a lengthy but deficient reply to Accuracy in Media’s critique of the article.

Regarding the passage about Jewish children that is absent from the authentic Vatican memo, Usnik’s reply includes this statement: “Some readers contend that a line in the Tardini dispatch, ‘It would be something else if the children were requested by their relatives,’ which was not present in the later French summary, shows that the church was willing to give Jewish children back to their families, regardless of whether or not they had been baptized. That view is complicated by a well-documented case, referenced in the Times article.” Usnik goes on to cite the famous case of Robert and Gerald Finaly, whose Catholic protectors did not want to give up after the boys’ parents perished in Auschwitz. This response from the Times cleverly sidesteps the issue of the authenticity of the document. Just because a document may support a previously held premise does not mean the desire to maintain the premise itself can replace or trump the need to authenticate a document. Surely, that is the lesson of the CBS Memogate
scandal. Indeed, such illogic is mind- boggling, irrational, anti-intellectual and a violation of sound reporting principles. AIM’s stance however, is focused on the authenticity of the document the Times has erroneously labeled an official Vatican document. This response falls into the “fake, but accurate” CBS defense of phony news.

The Truth

Researcher and Pius XII scholar William Doino Jr. commented to AIM on the Times’ invocation of the Finaly scandal: “The Times has never published evidence showing how Pius XII, when personally appealed to, directly ordered baptized Jewish children to be reunited with their Jewish families, as revealed among other places, in Peter Hellman’s book, Avenue of the Righteous; and it continues to invoke the much-misrepresented Finaly affair in which the French Church (Pius was not directly involved) actually helped to return the two Jewish boys to their Jewish aunt in Israel, in conjunction with a court order, against a renegade Catholic woman who was not only going against the Jewish community’s desires, but the clear instructions of the French Catholic hierarchy.”

The New York Times website still carries an English translation of the French memo under the title “1946 Letter from Vatican.” Usnik did not address AIM’s query as to whether the letter would remain on the site under that title. The Times response, quoted here only in part, obscures the primary issue: that the document has been debunked as not having been an official Vatican document. Apparently, the Times has no problem posting an English version of the incomplete French translation on its site and claiming that it is an authentic Vatican directive, even though it has no proof to offer of such a claim.

Missing The Point

The entire Times response to AIM was prefaced by this remark: “[S]upport for the argument that the document we used in our article was indeed authentic follows.” The Times’ first comment was that, “At the height of the debate over the Tardini dispatch, published in Il Giornale subsequent to the Times story, the Catholic monthly magazine, Civilta’ Catholica [sic], which is vetted by the Vatican’s Secretary of State, and is thus often read as a publication reflecting the Vatican’s thinking, acknowledged the authenticity of the document published by the Times.” Notably missing is inclusion of the word “Vatican” next to “authentic.”

Another Times Mistake

Historian Matteo Luigi Napolitano, who broke the scoop debunking the memo, told AIM the following:

“It is not true that La Civilt? Cat?lica ‘acknowledged the authenticity of the document published by the Times.’ In the only one article written on the questions, the Jesuits’ review does not make such an open acknowledgement. Instead, Fr. [Giovanni] Sale asks: who wrote the memo? Who summed up the Vatican directives? Furthermore, La Civilt? Cat?lica, by following our own discoveries, writes that the French document (released in America by the New York Times) ‘was published only in an incomplete way but also without prior critic verifications about its own origin and about the context in which it was written.’ (p.220).”

In addition, Napolitano points out that La Civilt? Cat?lica reported that the French memo and the Tardini dispatch (the “real Vatican document we published on January 11”) “are not identical” and that the former “is but a summing up or an elaboration” of the latter. Fr. Giovanni Sale considered the document may have been written by the Paris Nunciature (headed by Roncalli) and that it contains “refinements not indicated in the Tardini dispatch. (A reference to page 221 and 227 of the journal.) Napolitano sums up: “Thus the Melloni document was prepared by the French Nunciature (perhaps Roncalli), did not reflect what the real Vatican directives contained in the Tardini dispatch, and in fact distorted them by summing them up.”

Another Discrepancy

Napolitano clarified a further irony in the Times citing La Civilt? Cat?lica’s reporting as confirmation of its own: “It must be clear that the entire story about the Jewish children was discovered by Andrea Tornielli and myself; thus Fr. Sale in La Civilt? Cat?lica offers a good resume of the whole affair by following my own articles, as he clearly states right from the start of his own analysis.” (February 11 2005, vol. I, q. 3711, footnote 1 at page 221) La Civilt? Cat?lica adds that the real Vatican document was published “by A. Tornielli and M. L. Napolitano in ‘Il Giornale on January 11, 2005.”

In the Times lengthy reply to AIM there is no indication that it ever spoke with the historian-journalist duo who debunked the document touted by the Times as an authentic Vatican document. The Times has never told its readers about the original dossier and/or the Tardini document, or about the research of Napolitano and Tornielli.

The Times response to AIM also pointed out that its original story quoted a Vatican scholar as saying there was something “fishy” about the document, that it was not on papal stationery, was not signed, and carried a Paris dateline. Then the statement adds, “But the document was found in French Church archives and many church historians believe the document to be authentic.” The statement is not followed by any names of church historians.

Another Error

Historian Napolitano also finds fault with the Times statement that the document was “found in French Church archives.” Napolitano points out: “From the very same archive Tornielli and I took the whole dossier of the affair. The archive in question is a private research center, not a Church’s official archive.” The Times reiteration of the original locus of the document excludes any physical contextual data, because the Times itself never found the dossier.

Indeed, the winding Times apologia shifts gears and goes on to note that “many” historians and Vatican observers “believe that the French document, published by the Times, is a summary of the Tardini dispatch.” While it is true that there are common points between the documents, the comment completely evades, yet again, the core issue: that there is no evidence the French document is an authentic Vatican directive, as the Times stated. Surely the Times knows the difference between an authentic document and a flawed summary of such a document.

After reading the Times’ response to Accuracy in Media, author and Pius scholar William Doino Jr said “The Times, caught red-handed, is obfuscating and being disingenuous.”

The goal of Accuracy in Media is not to defend the Vatican, but to defend accuracy in the media.

For the Times to say a document is a “1946 Letter from the Vatican” is wrong and misleading, if that document is in fact a faulty translation by an unknown person of the genuine document. Either the Times has an unacceptably sloppy approach to reporting factual detail or perhaps the genuine document is not sensational enough to warrant a story, since there are no controversial remarks made in it.

After the Times annual meeting the paper issued a lengthy report on how the paper intends to restore its credibility with readers. But the inability to answer critics with hard facts shows that nothing has really changed at the Times. When push comes to shove, they will defend the indefensible.

William Doino Jr says, “In my judgment this is still a huge story of journalistic deception. The Times should not be allowed to get away with what they have done, saying defensively ‘We have nothing more to say about this matter’?There has got to be someone at the Times with a conscience.”

Accuracy in Media’s coverage followed critical attacks on the Times by scholars like Napolitano, Doino Jr, and law professor Ronald J. Rychlak.

Pope Bashing 

The Times coverage is the latest “hasty scoop” which tars the wartime pope, Pius XII. Scholars, like acclaimed historian Michael Burleigh, trace the trend in “Pius-bashing” to the 1960’s debut of Rolf Hochhuth’s play “The Deputy” (Der Stellvertreter) which created a sensation for its depiction of the pope as having done little to help Jews during Hitler’s reign. Burleigh claims that Hochhuth was “influenced heavily by KGB malignancy towards the pope of the Cold War.” Now after years of scholars patiently rebutting books like Hitler’s Pope comes the publication of The Pius Wars which portrays the pope as a “righteous Gentile” not an anti-Semite.

Edited by Joseph Bottum and Rabbi David G. Dalin, the book includes sections by Rychlak, Doino Jr, and other top scholars.

The book eviscerates the pope’s critics not as being disloyal, but for being disingenuous and for plying the public with speculation and imagination instead of fact. Burleigh is singing the praises of the book. Only time will tell whether the fascinating scholarly response to the negative books on Pius will generate anything close to the press flurry those books have created over the years.

Book Sent To Times

A copy of The Pius Wars has been sent to the New York Times religion editor Peter Steinfels as well as the editors of the New York Times Book Review.

New York Times spokesman Toby Usnik also mentioned the Pius controversy in his response to AIM: “As for any charge that the Times article is an attempt to fan controversy over the beatification of Pius XII, there is real debate within Italy, the church, and other religions about that process, and the Times feels it needs to inform its readers about that debate.”

Looking back to the influence of Hochhuth on the trend of casting Pius as an anti-Semite who colluded with the Nazis, one may be surprised to learn that Hochhuth himself was a member of the Hitler Youth, who went on to become close friends with one of the most notorious Holocaust deniers alive today: David Irving. Irving is the subject of a new book, History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving, by scholar and author Deborah Lipstadt. Lipstadt is Director of the Rabbi Donald A. Tam Institute for Jewish Studies and Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at the Emory University Department of Religion. When Lipstadt had previously described Irving as a Holocaust denier in a previous book, he sued her in London, the infamous libel capital of the world, where the defendant is guilty until proven innocent. Because of the absurd libel laws in Britain, Lipstadt wound up having to give courtroom-standard proof that the Holocaust did happen, millions were killed and there were indeed gas chambers at Auschwitz.

Hochhuth became close friends with Irving after they met in the Hamburg offices of Der Stern magazine in January 1965. Hochhuth got in hot water recently after giving an interview to Junge Freiheit [Young Freedom] on Friday, February 18, 2005, in which he called Irving a “fabulous pioneer of contemporary history,” an “honorable man” and “much more serious than many German historians.”

Old Friends

The German website Learning from History noted that the 73-year-old playwright knew what kind of man he was defending since he admitted he had been friends with Irving for 40 years.

As for the outcome of the Lipstadt trial, a May 29 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sums it up succinctly: “David Irving set out to demolish Deborah Lipstadt. One year after the trial, Irving’s wife and daughter wept on a curbside as liquidators seized their house, its contents, Irving’s library. By the time Irving got home, he discovered that the suit he was wearing was the only one he now owned. ‘They took everything. They took my entire research archive of 35 years,’ Irving said. ‘I find it increasingly difficult to be good-humored about it.'”

These stories show that sometimes history indeed goes on trial, and truth can win in the end. In the case of the New York Times and the phony Vatican memo, however, it seems truth will have an uphill battle.

The Times response to this controversy is certainly not consistent with its campaign to restore credibility to its news operations. Indeed, its handling of this phony Vatican document demonstrates that it still has a lot to learn.

What You Can Do

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