Journalism is all about access. To get the scoop, reporters must first get in. But some access comes with a price—and when totalitarian states hold the keys, ethical lines can be crossed. That’s what happened when one of the world’s most respected news organizations, The Associated Press, traded its editorial control for access to Nazi Germany during World War II, writes Philip Oltermann for the Guardian.
Oltermann reports on a German historian’s new revelations that the Associated Press entered into “a formal cooperation with the Hitler regime” during the Nazi era. Harriet Scharnberg, a German historian, writes in the German academic journal Studies in Contemporary History that in return for continued access to Nazi Germany, the AP agreed not to publish any material that would weaken the regime. She claims that the AP hired four Nazi photographers, including one named Franz Roth whose photographs were hand-selected by Hitler himself, and that the AP’s photo archives were used to make anti-Semitic propaganda.
The issue of journalistic access was tricky throughout the Nazi era and World War II. Germany had been welcoming to foreign correspondents before Hitler came into power, but in 1934, the Nazis began to expel journalists. They started with Dorothy Thompson, an influential journalist for the New York Post, in retribution for her critical writing about Hitler. By the outbreak of war, the AP was the only western news agency left in Germany.
That access put the AP in a powerful position: Because it was the only game in town, it could report on things no outsider could see. But in return, claims Scharnberg, the AP submitted to the Nazis’ restrictive Schriftleitergesetz (“editor’s law”). Within Germany, the law put all newspapers and media outlets under Nazi control. It contained a clause that forbade reports that tended to “weaken the strength of the German Reich, outwardly or inwardly,” or that offended “the honor and dignity of Germany.” The result, writes Scharnberg, were images and stories that had “propagandistic intention[s].”
In a statement, the AP denied collusion with the Nazis during the 1930s. “AP news reporting in the 1930s helped to warn the world of the Nazi menace,” the agency writes. “AP rejects the suggestion that it collaborated with the Nazi regime.” The agency claims it was subjected to pressure during the era and that Scharnberg’s research primarily concerns a German subsidiary of AP Britain that it lost control of after the Nazis expelled all foreign news organizations in 1941. The agency also states that it has started reviewing documents and other files in its archives. Oltermann notes that the AP has removed Roth’s photos from its website.
This wouldn't be the last time that the news agency would be accused of being in the pocket of an otherwise accessible totalitarian regime. Both the AP and the AFP have been criticized for setting up news bureaus in Pyongyang, North Korea, and in 2014 the AP was accused of compromising its independence by striking a deal that gives the Democratic People's Republic of Korea control over its stories. (The AP denies those claims, too.)
You could argue that some access is better than none: After all, the AP provided an unprecedented and unique look at Nazi Germany at a time when no other correspondents could do so. But if that glimpse was dictated by the interests of a totalitarian state—one that used a supposedly impartial news organization as one of its propaganda arms—it calls everything the public thought they knew about the Nazis into question. Perhaps some access simply costs too much.