Newshawks in Berlin: The Associated Press and Nazi Germany

  • By Larry Heinzerling and Randy Herschaft with Ann Cooper
  • Columbia University Press
  • 400 pp.

Ignoring atrocities in the name of access.

Newshawks in Berlin: The Associated Press and Nazi Germany

What is the price of access? In the normal course of covering events, journalists everywhere gain favor — and access — via favorable stories, photos, and captions. A “bad” story can easily burn sources and preclude future access to those perceived as key to getting the job done.

But what exactly is the job? Is it to tell truthfully and fully the news, without fear or favor, as the cherished mantra of the New York Times would have it? Or is it to engage in “responsibility censorship,” what Germany expected of foreign correspondents under the Third Riech? Violating this often ill-defined rule could — and did — result in the expulsion of journalists who then were free to report from the outside on what they actually saw.

But not all were so inclined to give up access for freedom of the press. In particular, the Associated Press, whose reports prior to and during World War II were disseminated to more than 1,200 newspapers in the United States, entered into a Faustian bargain with the Nazis. The dictum from AP general manager Kent Cooper was to respect local laws and the “hospitality” of the host dictatorship. “Guests of the countries…should not abuse their hospitality,” he asserted.

This is the tale told in Newshawks in Berlin by two AP veterans, Randy Herschaft and Larry Heinzerling, the latter the son of one of the “newshawks,” who died while the book was still in draft. Newshawks is based on a 2017 AP series by the authors, “In Covering Tyranny: The AP and Nazi Germany: 1933-1945.”

In their series and in more depth in their book, the authors show how the AP’s Berlin bureau operated under the watchful eye of German censors. Pulling punches to avoid expulsion as the cost of “being there,” the bureau’s reporters offered exclusive if self-censored views to the agency’s American clients. They did this, at least in part, to protect the agency’s financial interest in expanding into a global market. To “be there,” the AP even fired its Jewish employees to comply with Germany’s 1934 Editor’s Law that banned non-Aryans (and those married to non-Aryans) from working as journalists.

For the corporate AP, it was a matter of business over ethics. The man in charge of implementing these policies was the mild-mannered Berlin bureau chief, Louis Lochner. The American-born son of German immigrants carried out the corporate dictates despite personal misgivings. “It is more important for us to remain in the field here,” he wrote his superiors in New York, “even if occasionally we are licked, than to have our whole organization destroyed by publishing a picture to which the regime in power objects.”

To that end, Lochner declined to purchase a March 1933 photo of Jewish attorney Michael Siegel being paraded through Munich with a placard around his neck after being beaten by Nazi Brownshirts. Defending his decision, Lochner told his bosses back home that the Nazis would have expelled the Berlin bureau had AP distributed it.

For such alleged sins of omission and commission, critics accused Lochner of being pro-Nazi. It was only in 1942, with America at war with Germany, the Berlin bureau closed, and Lochner released after five months of internment, that he shared his anti-Nazi feelings in lectures and in a book entitled What About Germany?

While Lochner was Berlin bureau chief, his staff included American correspondents and German photographers. Some of those photographers were also on the Nazis’ payroll and even members of the Waffen-SS. One in particular merits an entire chapter: Franz Roth, a committed Nazi who wore the uniform as a war photographer for the government on the Eastern Front, where he died from a Russian bullet in March 1943. Years later, his son defended his father as not “a typical Nazi,” more an adventurer than an “avid Nazi,” while his granddaughter judged Roth more harshly.

With iPhones and the Internet, journalists today have more tools with which to disseminate the news — in words and pictures — and to work around censors. Yet the issues that confronted the wire-service newshawks in 1930s Berlin resonate in our own time, as “embedded” reporters accept government-imposed restrictions in return for access. But, again, at what cost?

“Issues they faced,” writes Ann Cooper, Heinzerling’s widow, who helped complete the book, “all remain dilemmas for today’s journalists covering war in Ukraine, protests in Iran, dictatorship in Myanmar, or human rights violations in every region of the world.”

The AP’s relationship with the Nazi government manifested itself in the tone and content of stories but even moreso in the photographs credited to the agency. The news service had outsourced this aspect of its coverage in 1931, before Hitler came to power, when it created a German subsidiary that, after 1933, was increasingly an arm of the German propaganda machine.

“In hindsight,” write Heinzerling and Herschaft, “some of the decisions Lochner and his AP colleagues made decades ago — both in the field and back at New York headquarters — appear deeply flawed.” Still, the authors have chosen to report rather than to judge.

“How, and how much, should one joust with censorship?” they ask in the epilogue. “What restrictions are acceptable when traveling with one side or the other in a conflict?” Newshawks in Berlin raises such questions from journalism’s past without prescribing answers for its present or future.

Eugene L. Meyer, a member of the board of the Independent, is a journalist and author of, among other books, Hidden Maryland: In Search of America in Miniature and Five for Freedom: The African American Soldiers in John Brown’s Army. Meyer, a longtime former Washington Post reporter and editor, has been featured in the Biographers International Organization’s podcast series.

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