C-SPAN executives said Friday that they had been reconsidering how to cover a new book about a libel trial over the Holocaust since author Deborah Lipstadt refused to appear on the air with a British writer who has claimed that Hitler did not order or approve the mass execution of 6 million Jews.
C-SPAN was hit with a barrage of criticism this week when it became public that the producers of the weekend program "Book TV" wanted to air a lecture by David Irving along with one by Lipstadt, a professor of Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta. More than 200 historians nationwide signed a petition opposing the cable network's decision to put Irving on the program.
"He personifies Holocaust denial," said Harvard legal expert Alan M. Dershowitz, who introduced Lipstadt when she spoke to a packed room Wednesday at Harvard Hillel, a Jewish organization associated with Harvard University.
"This is not about free speech. He can stand on a street corner and rant and rave, but C-SPAN ought to let him sell his poison elsewhere. They shouldn't create a debate where one doesn't exist."
C-SPAN initially asked Lipstadt, who is promoting her new book, "History on Trial: My Day in Court With David Irving," to debate Irving, which she flatly rejected. The producers then planned to show her speech at Harvard Hillel, back to back with a lecture by Irving, Lipstadt said.
When she heard of C-SPAN's plans, Lipstadt said, she refused them access to her speech. She said the network told her it intended to air a lecture by Irving that it filmed in Atlanta even if she chose not to participate in the program.
But C-SPAN said Friday, "We are still discussing how to cover this book, and we don't have an immediate timetable."
Lipstadt's book focuses on a lawsuit Irving brought against her in Britain, saying she libeled him by calling him a Holocaust denier.
In 2000, a British high court dismissed the case and branded Irving an "active Holocaust denier," noting that he has "persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence." It also said he was an anti-Semite, a racist and associated with right-wing extremists.
"This is not to say there are not many things about the Holocaust open to debate," Lipstadt said. "But not whether it happened or not."
C-SPAN, based in Washington, declined to make representatives available to be interviewed but issued a statement saying that its interest in covering Irving was "to hear his plaintiff's side of the story of the trial."
On his website, Irving says he has never said Jews did not die in the Holocaust, "but there is much of the rest of the 'H-package' that I, as an historian, am not prepared to swallow." He called the dispute over C-SPAN's programming plans "blind censorship, that is what this country now has to fear."
Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington, said historians organized a petition urging C-SPAN not to air Irving's comments about the mass killings of Jews during World War II after Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote about the network's plans Tuesday.
"We specifically approached this as historians," Medoff said. "This is a matter of historical fact, not interpretation." Medoff said that since the first petition was sent to C-SPAN, at least 100 more historians internationally have signed on.
C-SPAN has not responded to the petition, and Medoff said he hoped that the television executives would publicly apologize rather than allow the controversy to quietly disappear.
"There is an important lesson learned from all this, that historians are united in regarding Holocaust deniers as bigots and frauds, and it is wrong for television to give Holocaust deniers air time," Medoff said.
Lipstadt, meanwhile, is getting some benefit from the controversy in the form of publicity about her book. She is scheduled to be interviewed by Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly on Monday night, and she said she would still be "thrilled" to appear on C-SPAN's "Book TV," without Irving.