WGN TV Mistakenly Runs Nazi Image With Yom Kippur Story: What We Learn

September 23, 2015: WGN TV in Chicago ran the following graphic with a news story about Yom Kippur last night.

WGN Yom Kippur graphic

In response to expressions of dismay at the use of such a terrible image, WGN posted the following initial apology on their Facebook page, which has over 350,000 followers:

“We are truly sorry for inadvertently using an offensive image in our Yom Kippur story. We apologize and deeply regret the error.” – WGN-TV

Responses on the Facebook page are predictable and generally fall into three categories:

1). What’s the big deal? Everyone is too easily offended.

2). Look, they made a mistake and apologized. Forget it and move on.

3). Let me take a minute to explain why this is not okay and hopefully educate some people.

I want to address numbers one and two, specifically.

1). What’s the big deal? Everyone is too easily offended.

Offensive is the wrong word to describe what the image represents.

For those who don’t know, under the rule of Nazi Germany, Jews were required to wear the Star of David at all times, with the German word “Jude” written on it.  The Star marked Jews as different, as Other, as lesser. In this particular image used by WGN, the Star is overlaid on a black and white striped background, which was the prison uniform worn by Jews in the concentration camps. This image represents the genocide of 6 million people, an atrocity that occurred while the bystanders looked away.

Is it an offensive image? “Offensive” is how I describe it when someone gives me the finger.  Offensive is how I describe it when someone makes a Jewish joke using a sterotype such as, “Jews are all money hoarders” or “Jews have big noses.”

In truth, when I saw the image used by WGN-TV, I had a different reaction. The word that comes to mind isn’t offensive.  Maybe horrific would work. Or terrifying.

When I was in my teens, I spent a summer traveling with other students and living with different families in Eastern Europe.  Our student group visited several concentration camps. I’ve been to Auschwitz-Birkenau and Dachau. We took a tour at each camp, if you can call it that.

At Auschwitz, we walked down cement steps into a gas chamber.  When the camps were active, the Jews were told that they were walking into group showers. Once they were inside, the Nazis locked the doors and turned on poisonous gas. There were bloody stains and streaks on the walls where Jewish people had broken and bloodied their fingernails trying to claw their way out when they realized what was happening. I looked at the old rust-colored stains and nearly vomited.

I remember how I stood in that cement tomb and began to hyperventilate, because I realized that if I had been born just 30 years earlier in Eastern Europe, I would not ever be walking back out of that gas chamber.  A blink of an eye in space and time.

Other images from the concentration camp tour stand out in my mind.  Looking through an enormous glass wall into a room filled floor to ceiling with small white leather baby shoes.  The shoes were taken off thousands of babies before they were killed.  Some of the Nazis used to throw babies in the air and shoot them for target practice.  I was a child when I looked at those shoes, thinking of the children who would never grow up.

There were other rooms. One was filled with coarse cloth woven from human hair. Another was filled with suitcases, thousands and thousands of suitcases.  Each one was carefully labeled on the outside.  I looked at the handwriting; I saw the names of families who packed a lifetime of dreams into a bag and then perished.

This is what the Nazi graphic means to me. This isn’t about being too politically correct. This graphic is the symbol that was used to mark Jews as lesser than human. But the ones who were less than human were those who did the killing.

2). Look, they made a mistake and apologized. Forget it and move on.

The forgetting about it is the problem. This mistake is evidence that history is being forgotten by too many.  There are thousands of books and plays and movies and poems about what happened to the Jews during World War II, yet whoever Googled that image and used it for the broadcast was unaware of its significance.

WGN has a responsibility to its viewers, and there should be some oversight of its employees.  If they have hired people without a basic working knowledge of history, this is important to address.

There are a couple lessons to learn here:

  • It is good that WGN directly owned the mistake and apologized.  This is ALWAYS better than trying to bury it or pretend it didn’t happen.  Taking accountability is the right thing to do, and WGN is doing that.
  • However, the art of a good apology should also include some restorative actions.  For example, WGN could do a piece that provides some education about the Holocaust. Or WGN could bring its employees to visit the Holocaust Museum in Skokie, IL for a training session.
  • Mistakes in the digital age leave a permanent record. It is more important than ever to SLOW DOWN and check your references and resources before putting something on the news.  This is an important lesson to all of us, the constant reminder that things move fast and to pause before you publish. Or broadcast.

About twelve hours after the first apology, WGN posted the following, in a continued good effort to take accountability:

Yom Kippur apology

Today is Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.  I think of the six million who died today. I think of the Shabbat dinner we have each Friday, and of the Jewish children we are raising.  I think of my oldest daughter’s birthmother, who is Christian, and how she never hesitated when we mentioned that we would be raising her baby to be a Jew.

My young daughters are living proof that Hitler failed.  He tried to eradicate the Jews, but we choose life and hope.  And since it is the Day of Atonement, I forgive the person at WGN who made this unfortunate mistake.  But forget I will not do.  There is danger in forgetting.  We honor the living and the dead by remembering.

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