Harvard Profs Sign Petition Against C-Span Telecast of Holocaust Denier
By David Zhou – Contributing Writer
Almost 600 historians and academics—including 18 Harvard professors—have signed a petition protesting the public television station C-SPAN’s plan to broadcast a lecture by historian and accused Holocaust denier David Irving.
The controversy stemmed from C-SPAN’s initial decision to air Irving’s talk immediately after a lecture by Emory University Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies Deborah E. Lipstadt.
She had also been scheduled to appear on the station’s “Book TV” program to discuss her forthcoming book, “History on Trial: My Day in Court With David Irving.” It recounts the libel lawsuit Irving filed against her in a British court for labeling him a Holocaust denier in her 1993 book, “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.” He lost the lawsuit in 2000.
On Sunday, “Book TV” featured a discussion with Washington Post reporter T.R. Reid about the book and the trial and showed assorted clips of Lipstadt and Irving. No lectures were aired, and Lipstadt said that to the best of her knowledge, none will.
Lipstadt had refused to appear on C-SPAN upon learning of the planned broadcast time of Irving’s lecture.
“What they wanted to do was to set me up, to force me into a debate,” Lipstadt said. “There is nothing to debate.”
The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies then organized a petition urging the station to show only Lipstadt’s lecture and circulated the petition among academics.
“Within forty-eight hours, we had more than two hundred scholars on the petition,” said Wyman Institute Director Rafael Medoff.
The petition attracted 570 signatures.
“Clearly, this had an impact on C-SPAN,” Medoff said after the Sunday program aired. “The program that they broadcast was a clear demonstration that they realized they had made a mistake,” he said.
The level of interest in this issue was thrust into high gear by the involvement of Irving, who is a particularly controversial figure.
In his books and during the trial, Irving has claimed, for example, that gas chambers were not used at Auschwitz and that the atrocities against the Jews were not mainly directed by Adolf Hitler.
High Court Judge Charles Gray, who presided over the libel case, wrote in his decision that Irving had “persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence…is anti-Semitic and racist and that he associates with right wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism.”
“That says it all about the quality of his so-called scholarly merit,” said Medoff, referring to Gray’s comments.
“Over the years, Irving has proved himself a resourceful researcher (his neo-Nazi contacts in Germany have helped), but his work has been tendentious and transgressed every rule that historians are supposed to follow,” Coolidge Professor of History David G. Blackbourn, who signed the petition, wrote in an e-mail.
“He is more and more convinced of the notion that the Holocaust is a fraud,” said Saltonstall Professor of History Charles S. Maier ’60, another signatory. “He has the potential to be a good historian, but he has become twisted by this point of view.”
Other scholars offered even more pointed critiques.
“The notion that one gives this man David Irving room on C-SPAN is outrageous,” said Baird Professor of History Emeritus Richard E. Pipes, who signed the petition.
Lipstadt said Irving is a “fabricator of evidence and a liar.”
Irving defended his reputation and refused to be deemed a Holocaust denier.
“I think the epithet is completely undeserved,” Irving said, adding that American publishers have refused to print his books since the controversy.
“I don’t use the phrase the ‘Holocaust’ because I don’t believe in the marketing approach of the ‘Holocaust,’” he said. “But I went into more detail about the individual aspects of the Nazi atrocities against the Jews and used original sources.”
Irving called Lipstadt an “upstart young professor,” and criticized the scholars who signed the petition for engaging in censorship and submitting to departmental peer pressure.
In a column by Richard Cohen that appeared in The Washington Post on March 15, Senior Executive Producer of “Book TV” Connie Doebele explained the decision to include Irving’s lecture: “You know how important fairness and balance is at C-SPAN….We ask ourselves, ‘Is there an opposing view of this?’”
Irving said this mindset was “in the best traditions of American journalism.”
But on “Book TV’s” Sunday night edition, Doebele said she regretted her choice of words.
“Using the word ‘balance’ is kind of an internal jargon that we use here in the newsroom,” she said. “What it means really is looking for another voice out there.”
All of the petition signatories who spoke with The Crimson agreed that including Irving does not promote journalistic objectivity.
“It is a distortion of the concept of ‘balance’ to give publicity and legitimacy to Irving and his proven falsehoods,” petition signatory and Sociology Department Chair Mary C. Waters wrote in an e-mail.
“An issue of fact is being confused with an interpretation of significance,” said Maier.
“If C-SPAN wants to cover him, let them cover him,” said Marvin Kalb, a senior fellow at the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy and a signatory. “But C-SPAN should not be balancing the Holocaust with a denier.”
“This is not balance,” said Lipstadt. “This is a guy who is saying the historical equivalent of ‘the earth is flat.’”