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Richard Cohen

C-SPAN's Balance of the Absurd

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, March 15, 2005; Page A23

You will not be seeing Deborah Lipstadt on C-SPAN. The Holocaust scholar at Emory University has a new book out ("History on Trial"), and an upcoming lecture of hers at Harvard was scheduled to be televised on the public affairs cable outlet. The book is about a libel case brought against her in Britain by David Irving, a Holocaust denier, trivializer and prevaricator who is, by solemn ruling of the very court that heard his lawsuit, "anti-Semitic and racist." No matter. C-SPAN wanted Irving to "balance" Lipstadt.

The word balance is not in quotes for emphasis. It was invoked repeatedly by C-SPAN producers who seemed convinced that they had chosen the most noble of all journalistic causes: fairness. "We want to balance it [Lipstadt's lecture] by covering him," said Amy Roach, a producer for C-SPAN's Book TV. Her boss, Connie Doebele, put it another way. "You know how important fairness and balance is at C-SPAN," she told me. "We work very, very hard at this. We ask ourselves, 'Is there an opposing view of this?' "

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As luck would have it, there was. To Lipstadt's statements about the Holocaust, there was Irving's rebuttal that it never happened -- no systematic killing of Jews, no Final Solution and, while many people died at Auschwitz of disease and the occasional act of brutality, there were no gas chambers there. "More women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber at Auschwitz," Irving once said.

For obvious reasons, Lipstadt cited Irving in her 1993 book, "Denying the Holocaust," which was also published in Britain. Irving sued her for libel. Under Britain's libel laws, Lipstadt had to prove the truth of what she wrote, which, after a lengthy trial, she did in spades. Her lawyer's opening statement -- "My Lord, Mr. Irving calls himself a historian. The truth is, however, that he is not a historian at all, but a falsifier of history. To put it bluntly, he is a liar." -- ultimately became the judgment of the court itself. In matters of intellectual integrity, Irving is an underachiever.

Once, this was not all that apparent. By dint of maniacal industry, Irving had turned himself into an admired writer on Nazi Germany. He mined the archives for material that others appeared to have overlooked. Some of it was genuine; some of it was false. Increasingly, though, his books gave off the whiff of anti-Semitism and a certain admiration of Hitler. When Richard J. Evans, a Cambridge University historian (and one of Lipstadt's expert witnesses), carefully examined Irving's work, he found it a stew of misrepresentations, falsifications and outright quackery. Irving was authoritatively exposed: a propagandist hiding behind seemingly scholarly footnotes.

This is the man C-SPAN turned to for "balance." It told Lipstadt that since it was going to air her lecture, it would do one of Irving's, too. As luck would have it, he was appearing March 12 at the Landmark Diner in Atlanta. C-SPAN was there for this momentous event -- although Irving's advance warning that cameras would be present apparently held down attendance. (His people seem to prefer anonymity -- or, in the old days, sheets.) Lipstadt was in effect being told that if she wanted to promote her book on C-SPAN (an important venue) she would also have to promote Irving. If she was to get a TV audience, then so would he.

C-SPAN's cockeyed version of fairness -- it told Lipstadt that it had bent over backward to ensure its coverage of the presidential election was fair and balanced -- is so mindless that I thought for a moment its producers and I could not be talking about the same thing. This is the "Crossfire" mentality reduced to absurdity, if that's possible. For a book on the evils of slavery, would it counter with someone who thinks it was a benign institution? Why does it feel there is another side to the Holocaust or to Irving's assertion that he was libeled? He was not. He was described to a T.

In the end, Lipstadt had to choose between promoting her own book -- a terrific read, by the way -- and giving Irving the audience of his dreams and a status equal to her own. C-SPAN said it was only seeking fairness, but it was asking Lipstadt to balance truth with a lie or history with fiction. On this occasion, at least, Irving did what he could not do with his libel suit: silence Lipstadt. He may still appear on C-SPAN, but Lipstadt will not -- a victory for "balance" that only the truly unbalanced could applaud.

cohenr@washpost.com


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