LA Times says pro-internment letters should not have run

boys-barbed-wire-manzanar-skirball.jpgBoys at Manzanar by Toyo Miyatake.

A day after his own Travel section ran two letters that justified the World War II internment of Americans, Los Angeles Times editor-publisher Davan Maharaj said today the letters did not meet the paper’s standards for “civil, fact-based discourse” and should not have been published. The letters took a benign view of one of the ugliest and most racist chapters in American history: the internment in camps of more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans and immigrants — men, women and children — many of whom lost everything when ordered to leave their homes, farms and businesses. The scar remains in many Los Angeles families today.

The internment was ordered in 1942 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the height of West Coast fears about the potential for collusion by people with ties to Japan. A 1988 law signed by President Ronald Reagan formally apologized to the internees, said the internment resulted from "race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership” rather than from real security considerations, and established a $1.25-billion trust fund to pay reparations.

Why were these letters published in the LAT's Travel section? The section had recently run a piece by cultural writer Carolina Miranda on her visits to the sites of Manzanar and Tule Lake, the two most notorious camps in California. Travel editor Catherine Hamm says in a blog post this afternoon by the Times' Readers' Representative that it was her decision to publish the letters, thinking the views would be balanced by later letters in response. "Hamm said that, in retrospect, that was not the right decision, because the views expressed in the letters did not lend themselves to reasoned discussion," the blog post says.

From the LA Times explanation, which does not apologize or discuss further actions or sanctions beyond a plan to publish responses in next Sunday's Travel section:

Maharaj made the same point in discussions with staff members disturbed by the letters, and in remarks to editors during The Times’ daily news meeting this morning.

“Letters in The Times are the opinions of the writers, and editors strive to include a range of voices. But the goal is to present readers with civil, intelligent, fact-based opinions that enlarge their understanding of the world,” Maharaj said. “These letters did not meet that standard.”

The longer of the letters argued that the interned Americans were "housed, fed, protected and cared for" and were safer than they would have been if they stayed home. The writer claimed to know that the Japanese-Americans then in California would have had strong family loyalty to Japan over the U.S. A second letter cited a book by Bill O"Reilly and introduced the non-sequitur that, because Japan's military committed atrocities in the Philippines, "I would have much rather been interned by the U.S. in California than by the Japanese in their captured lands." Yesss, but...

There was a quick reaction online to the letters.

The blogger at Angry Asian Man elaborated on his blog:

Are we really doing this right now? Amid heightened Islamophobia, ominous discussions of Muslim registries and a spike in post-election hate crimes, the lessons of history seem more relevant now than ever. Thousands of innocent Japanese Americans were locked up behind barbed wire. Their stories stand as a memorial of the government's injustice and a warning to those who cite internment as "precedent."


So what is the Los Angeles Times doing, giving voice to these views? This is not a matter of "balance." Steve and Dick [the letter writers] can believe whatever fucked up crackpot history they want, but a major metropolitan newspaper giving a platform to their whackshit arguments is dangerous and, frankly, irresponsible.

This from an LA Times reporter:

This is the topic of my LA Observed segment on KCRW this afternoon at 4:44 p.m. Also, with Manzanar and Tule Lake in the news, it's never a bad time to point younger readers to Farewell to Manzanar or to the photographic record created for the government by Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange.

sanfrancisco-line-lange.jpgLining up to register in San Francisco. Photo: Dorothea Lange.

manzanar-dorothea-lange.jpgManzanar War Relocation Center near Independence, California. Photo by Dorothea Lange.

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