Henry Ford Was Anti-Semitic. Bill McGraw Wrote About It — And Got Fired.
When Bill McGraw became the editor of the Dearborn Historian last summer, he hoped to grow the audience of the city-funded Michigan journal, which has 230 subscribers and no website.
He was not expecting to make national news.
But when Dearborn mayor John B. O’Reilly first objected to the cover of the journal’s January issue — its 100th edition — then prevented its distribution and, on January 31, directed that McGraw be fired, McGraw, a veteran journalist, knew a media storm would follow.
The offending journal’s cover story was one McGraw had written himself: “Henry Ford and ‘The International Jew’: His Century-old Anti-Semitism Thrives in the 21st Century.” The 11-page spread systematically broke down the ways in which Ford used the Dearborn Independent, the magazine he had purchased in January, 1919, as a mouthpiece for virulent anti-Semitism. “The International Jew,” a 91-installment series that began in 1920, had a profound influence on Hitler, who awarded Ford the Grand Cross of the Supreme Order of the German Eagle. Ford deliberately refused to copyright “The International Jew,” ensuring its rapid spread. “Ford’s salvos,” McGraw wrote, “were likely the most sustained printed attack on Jews the world had ever seen.”
O’Reilly’s objections to the article, ancillary material for which included archival installments of “The International Jew,” remains unclear. While the journal was never distributed, McGraw’s article did appear on the website Deadline Detroit; the mayor has not spoken to the media, although his office provided a statement to The New York Times and Columbia Journalism Review. “It was thought that by presenting information from 100 years ago that included hateful messages — without a compelling reason directly linked to events in Dearborn today — this edition of The Historian could become a distraction from our continuing messages of inclusion and respect,” the statement said.
The Forward spoke to McGraw on the phone. The following conversation has been edited for clarity.
Talya Zax: Walk me through your decision to write this particular article.
Bill McGraw: This was only my second issue, putting out the Historian. They asked me to become editor in May or June; right away I realized that last month was the 100th anniversary of Ford buying the Independent. Dearborn does really identify itself with Henry Ford, so I always paid attention to this chapter of Ford’s life, how it was treated by the local museums and all that. And so I knew from the very get-go that I was going to do this for the January issue, the perfect timing.
My point was that while a lot of people in the Detroit area have learned that Henry Ford was an anti-Semite, most people don’t know all the details. It did seem like one of those times, because of anti-Semitic incidents, [that cries] out for people who aren’t Jews to react in a way that’s positive for the whole community.
Who ordinarily gets a say in determining the content the journal will and will not publish?
The first issue I did, nobody really asked me anything. I knew this issue would raise some questions.
The process is that the printer prints them and delivers them to the museum, where they put labels on them to mail out. I’m a freelancer, but I was getting paid by the city. When [my supervisor] saw the issue, he wanted me to come and talk about it. He had taken some [copies] over to the mayor’s office, which he always does out of courtesy. The first thing we heard was that the mayor wanted to take that quote off the cover. I always knew this story was going to be on Deadline Detroit; we decided we’re going to put this story up and let people read it. On Monday, that’s when the mayor said he was going to kill the whole issue. And on Thursday is when I got fired.
Did you directly interact with Mayor O’Reilly over this article? What’s your assessment of his reaction to your publication of it?
No, I haven’t. We did try; I called his office on the suggestion of my boss, the curator of the museum. I called the mayor’s office and his secretary said I’d have to talk to the communications person. I never heard back from her or the mayor.
I understand I’m a journalist working for a publication, and he’s a politician. While there could have been a little more communication about this, I don’t know if we could have found middle ground. I didn’t want to change a thing.
In a Friday statement, mayor O’Reilly’s office stated “this edition of The Historian could become a distraction from our continuing messages of inclusion and respect.” Do you have a response?
I would say that the mayor is very correct that Dearborn’s message is inclusion. The mayor’s office sends out that message; that’s what everyone in Dearborn tries to project. But I also think that Dearborn’s residents are really sophisticated, and they could handle reading the story and talking about what it means in this day and age.
I think overall the role of local historical magazines like ours is to cover truth even if it’s unpleasant, but also to link what’s going on around the world to Dearborn. By anybody’s count — the ADL, the FBI — anti-Semitic incidents are up in America. That’s a serious issue people have to account for.
Did anything you found in your reporting for this essay particularly surprise you?
Yes. I was shocked by how vivid a figure Henry Ford is in online hate websites and forums. As I wrote, that’s what gave the story a special bite. It didn’t take me long to find references to Ford and the stuff he published 100 years ago, but a lot of people were using his name and picture, it seemed like a lot of people — you can’t tell how old they are — but it seemed like a lot of people were discovering Henry Ford for the first time. He was acting as a validator. That’s what experts say happened with Adolf Hitler. Even biographers who are very sympathetic to Ford say the writings put out in his name in the 20s were very influential in the formation of many Nazi officials.
Your article also goes into the backlash to the anti-Semitism in the Independent. That part of the story seems extremely important, and under-covered. Was it really a major national issue?
Two presidents, Taft and Wilson, they were the leading two of a line of real VIPs who signed a letter denouncing Ford. This was at the top of political society in America at the time.
You’re a veteran journalist. Given the current trend of politicians showing animosity to journalism, does this action read differently to you?
I’ve never covered [the mayor] as a reporter, so I don’t know how he reacts to the local press. I don’t make any links. He’s not a newspaper-bashing person. I think that’s why people who know him have been so surprised; it’s not in keeping with his general very steady way he conducts himself and conducts business.
You told CJR that you intended to resign your position prior to the mayor’s decision. Why did you intend to leave the Historian?
I think I said earlier, this is a situation that probably is not a match made in heaven, where a lifelong journalist, his editor [is] the mayor. I have a lot of respect for him. I just figured this is not going to work. I could be writing about maple trees in the future and his staff would be looking over my shoulder. I thought it wasn’t good for either party.