Commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ flight on December 17, President Bush took a shot at the New York Times. “The New York Times once confidently explained why all attempts at flight were doomed from the start,” the President said. “To build a flying machine, declared one editorial, would require ‘the combined and continuous efforts of mathematicians and mechanicians from one million to ten million years.’ As it turned out, the feat was performed eight weeks after the editorial was written.” The crowd responded with applause to the criticism of the Times and laughter at the foolishness of the newspaper that publishes “all the news that’s fit to print.”
But it’s not a laughing matter that the Times continues to hang on to a discredited Pulitzer Prize that represents a pattern of lies about the old Soviet Union.
For the second time in little over a decade, the Pulitzer Prize board has refused to revoke its 1932 award to Walter Duranty, the Times’ chief correspondent in Moscow from 1922 to 1941, who was widely praised in his day for his “dispassionate, interpretative reporting of the news from Russia.” Many believe Duranty’s reporting was instrumental in the Roosevelt administration’s decision to officially recognize the Soviet Union in 1933.
As the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America notes, “This official recognition sanctioned Stalin’s repressive regime, which led to decades of continued brutality and the slaughter of untold millions.”
But Duranty’s prize has become increasingly controversial, as more evidence of dishonesty and deceit in his coverage of Stalinism has emerged.
In 1990, at the urging of Accuracy in Media and others, the board had considered revoking Duranty’s prize. But then-Pulitzer administrator Robert Christopher said to do so “would be inappropriate and set a bad precedent.” The New York Times’ senior management used the board’s action to turn down requests to voluntarily return the prize.
In response to the new decision, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., the Times publisher, issued a statement declaring that, “We respect and commend the Pulitzer board for its decision on this complex and sensitive issue.” Publicly, Times’ spokesmen continued to emphasize their “awareness” of the defects in Duranty’s work. Bill Keller, the Times new executive editor, told the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz that the paper considered Duranty’s work “pretty dreadful?It was a parroting of propaganda.” But Keller also said the Times couldn’t “unaward” Duranty’s prize and worried that “other prize winners might face similar complaints.”
By refusing to return the award, Sulzberger ignored the recommendation of Columbia history professor Mark Von Hagen, who was commissioned by the Times in mid-summer to review Duranty’s work. His report was delivered to the Times in late July and forwarded to the Pulitzer review committee by Sulzberger. Sulzberger initially declined to comment on the contents of a cover letter he sent along with the report. He told the AP “It was between me and the Pulitzer Board.”
But his squeamishness became evident when his own paper reported on the letter in October. Jacques Steinberg wrote that Sulzberger had misgivings about revoking Duranty’s award and that he had asked the board to consider whether revocation would resemble the “Stalinist practice to airbrush purged figures out of historical records.” He also feared that “the board would be setting a precedent for revisiting its judgments over many decades.” Not surprisingly, Keller later said he “concurred with Mr. Sulzberger.”
But historian Von Hagen did not. His report did not include recommendations as to the status of the prize, but shortly before the board announced its decision, Von Hagen told reporters that Duranty’s prize “should be rescinded.” He made that recommendation to the New York Sun and repeated it in an interview with the Times’ Steinberg. After the contents of Sulzberger’s letter to the board became known, Von Hagen sent a letter to the Times’ editor taking exception to Sulzberger’s concerns about “airbrushing.” He said such an action would “bring great awareness of the potential long-term damage that [Duranty’s] reporting did for our understanding of the Soviet Union.”
This time, the campaign against Duranty came from an international coalition of Ukrainian groups intent on focusing world attention on the 70th anniversary of the Stalin-induced Great Famine in Ukraine. Between 1932 and 1933, historians estimate that the famine killed seven to ten million people. Ukrainians say that puts the slaughter on a scale comparable to the Jewish Holocaust, but the catastrophe remains one of the least known crimes committed by Stalin. They attribute this, in part, to the work of foreign correspondents like Duranty, who willingly participated in the Soviet campaign to cover up and deny the disaster. Duranty also spearheaded the effort to slander those correspondents who reported accurately on the famine.
But, as in 1990, the board justified its decision by insisting that Duranty’s award was for a specific series of articles published by the Times in 1931, before the famine began. In its statement, the board acknowledged that the Ukrainian famine “was horrific and has not received the international attention it deserves.” But the statement also emphasized that its “six months of study and deliberation” had focused solely on 13 articles published in 1931 and not for Duranty’s entire body of work. The board admitted that the articles “measured by today’s standards of foreign reporting, fall seriously short.”
That is a far cry from its 1932 declaration that Duranty’s work represented “excellent examples of the best type of foreign correspondence.” According to the great historian of Stalinist terror, Robert Conquest, the 1932 award announcement declared Duranty’s articles “marked by scholarship, profundity, impartiality, sound judgment, and exceptional clarity.” The Nation magazine described the articles as “the most enlightening, dispassionate, and readable dispatches from a great nation in the making which appeared in any newspaper in the world.”
The board further justified its decision by declaring that it was not convinced that Duranty had deliberately misled readers. In its coverage of the board’s decision, the Times’ David D. Kirkpatrick concluded only that Duranty was “too credulous of Soviet propaganda.” All this enabled the Times and the board to avoid the real issue: whether Duranty deliberately fed readers Soviet disinformation and propaganda instead of reporting the truth about Stalin’s reign.
But evidence shows that Duranty knew he was simply parroting the Soviet line. History professor Dr. James Mace uncovered in the National Archives a 1931 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Berlin that documented a discussion between Duranty and American diplomat A.W. Klieforth. Mace writes that Duranty had gone to the embassy to renew his passport. Klieforth reported that, during that visit, Duranty had told him “that, ‘in agreement with the New York Times and the Soviet authorities,’ his official dispatches always reflect the official opinion of the Soviet government and not his own.”
Klieforth’s cable is dated June 4, 1931; the timing is significant, since 11 of the 13 Duranty articles cited by the board were published by the Times beginning on June 14 of that year. The series ran throughout June and wrapped up on June 27, 1931. The Times articles all carry the notation that Duranty’s dispatches were being written during his stay in Paris. The implication is that Duranty stopped in Berlin en route to Paris and admitted to Klieforth that everything he intended to publish would faithfully reflect the Soviet line and not the truth about developments in Soviet Russia.
A Stalin Apologist
In truth, the articles are little more than a running apology for Stalin’s imposition of terror on the peoples of the Soviet Union. Duranty justified Stalinism by citing the peculiar character of Russia and the Russian people, who were better suited to the ideas set forth in the Communist Manifesto than “the Western theory of individualism and private enterprise.” To Duranty, by forcibly imposing collectivization and forced industrialization, Stalin was just giving the people “what they really want-joint effort, communal effort.”
He wrote approvingly that the “Stalinist machine is better organized for the formulation and control of public opinion in a great country than anything history has heretofore known.” At the same time, however, Duranty wrote that censorship in the Soviet Union was “usually mild” and nearly always “applied with intelligence and moderation.” The Kremlin never, according to Duranty, abused the power of the media to exercise its control over the population.
Stalin was depicted as a political genius, but modest in his ambition. At one point, Duranty acknowledges that Stalin is imposing “absolutism” on Russia, but then writes “not that Stalin wants it for his ambition or vainglory.” Simply, “the circumstances and Russia demand it.” He ridicules “outsiders” who “write nonsense about Stalin’s egoism.” In the same article, he dismisses Western allegations that Stalin has imposed “slavery and terror” on the people. But then writes “Stalin didn’t do it-if the truth were known it was perhaps done despite him.” In order to make him more appealing to American audiences, Stalin is depicted as Western in his tastes; in literature, for example, Duranty wrote that Stalin preferred Shakespeare over the socialist-realism doggerel Soviet literature was producing during this period.
Lenin had called Czarist Russia a “prison house of the minorities.” Duranty wrote glowingly of Stalin’s handling of the minorities question in the new Soviet Russia. Under Stalinism, he wrote, every minority group was allowed “what might have seemed a dangerously lavish degree of cultural and political autonomy.” According to Duranty, Stalin had created a system that “on the whole seems to work more smoothly than any organization of a heterogeneous State yet devised by man.”
The objective of Stalinism, according to Duranty, was to modernize the Soviet state through forced industrialization and the collectivization of agriculture. Of the policies that forced peasants into collective farms, he wrote that these farms were “more productive than their wretched little individual holdings” and “more truly contributing to their ultimate good.” Duranty ignored the “virtual civil war” that had erupted in the countryside beginning in 1929 in response to collectivization. Professor Von Hagen writes, “By 1931 Stalin had murdered hundreds of thousands of its own peasant citizens as they refused to submit to Moscow’s dictates to collectivize.”
Through his policies, Duranty wrote, Stalin sought true equality and the elimination of class boundaries: “Stalinism not only aims, but boasts of aiming at the complete smashing of class boundaries, at the death of all distinctions save talent and State service between man and man. Rank may replace class in the Bolshevik cosmogony to satisfy human needs, but rank based on merit, not wealth or birth.”
In short, Duranty’s depiction of Stalin’s Soviet Russia was unremittingly upbeat and positive. His line was that Stalin was tough, but he had to be in ways that were repugnant to the West but simply necessitated by the primitive, Asiatic character of the Russian peoples.
Moreover, Duranty wrote that Stalin was focused on creating “socialism in one country,” and that Soviet Russia presented no external threat to its neighbors. The Red Army was solely for defensive purposes and the Comintern was largely defanged, according to Duranty. Duranty depicted the Soviet Union as a vast, untapped market; a characterization he probably believed would appeal to American capitalists.
A Stalinist Propagandist
After his own review of Duranty’s 1931 work, Columbia professor Von Hagen concluded that Duranty’s “analyses” were “very effective renditions of the Stalinist leadership’s self-understanding of their murderous and progressive project to defeat the backwardness of Slavic, Asiatic peasant Russia.” Duranty “frequently writes in the enthusiastically propagandistic language of his sources?without any ironic distance or critical commentary.”
Those sources, Von Hagen writes, are all “official Soviet sources, either newspapers or speeches by the leadership.” Von Hagen pronounces Duranty’s “uncritical acceptance of the Soviet self-justification for its cruel and wasteful regime” a disservice to the Times and its readers. Based on what he read of Duranty, he wrote that he is not surprised that the reporter would “deny in print the famine of 1932-1933.”
The Pulitzer board and the Times also ignored the judgment of Duranty by several of his contemporaries in Moscow. Professor Mace cites the memoirs of Malcolm Muggeridge, who was a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian in Moscow in the early 1930s. Muggeridge wrote: “I suppose no one-not even Louis Fischer-followed the Party Line, every shift and change, as assiduously as [Duranty] did.” His articles were “so ludicrously false that they were a subject of derision among the other correspondents and even [the Soviet censor] had been known to make jokes about them.” Muggeridge pronounced Duranty “The greatest liar of any journalist I have known in fifty years of journalism.”
Others point to Duranty’s own admission that he had lied about the catastrophe in the Ukraine in 1932-33. Despite reports surfacing in the West about the famine, Duranty wrote in 1933 that Russians were hungry, “but not starving.” He told his readers that there were “serious food shortages,” but “no actual starvation” in the Ukraine. “No death from starvation,” he wrote, just “widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition.” But Duranty knew the truth about the situation in Ukraine in 1932-33. In September 1933, Professor Mace reports that Duranty told a British diplomat in Moscow that “it is possible that as many as ten million people may have died directly or indirectly from the lack of food in the Soviet Union in the past year,” and “The Ukraine has been bled white.” In his 1949 memoir, he would write, “Whatever Stalin’s apologists may say, 1932 was a year of famine in Russia.” As Andrew Stuttaford concluded in National Review Online: “the evidence from 1933 is clear. Duranty was a liar. And if he was a liar in 1933, it’s probable that he was a liar in 1931.”
Duranty’s motivations have been the subject of speculation for years; some believe that he was richly rewarded by the Soviets and he was said to have lived lavishly during his stay in Moscow. Some have speculated that Soviet intelligence agents blackmailed him; he is reported to have been a sexual deviant. Others have speculated that he was on the Soviet government’s payroll, but no evidence of that has yet emerged from Soviet archives.
Another of his contemporaries, the socialist Eugene Lyons, wrote that “access” to key power brokers, especially Stalin and other high-ranking officials, is the most likely explanation for Duranty’s lies. Lyons wrote, “The real medium of exchange in Moscow, buying that which neither rubles nor dollars can touch, was power.” Access to that power offered “inducements [that] are more effective in bridling a correspondent’s tongue than any threats?Whether in Moscow or Berlin, Tokyo or Rome, all the temptations for a practicing reporter are in the direction of conformity.”
To update Lyons, we could add Baghdad or Havana to that list. Like Duranty in an earlier day, foreign correspondents deliberately shaded the truth about Saddam Hussein in their coverage of Iraq. CNN is usually cited as the most blatant offender, but emerging accounts also depict the major television networks and newspapers as willing transmitters of Saddam Hussein’s propaganda. Beyond the moral blindness of the Pulitzer committee and the New York Times, what makes this story relevant are the disclosures of similar practices by major media outlets in their coverage of Iraq.
On the heels of the Duranty fiasco, the Times has been caught once again smearing the reputation of one of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson.
Times editorial writer Brent Staples could not resist the opportunity to use the revelation that Strom Thurmond had a black daughter to dredge up discredited allegations that Jefferson had fathered a black son from one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.
In a December 18 column about the Thurmond scandal, he declared that, “The cover-up hatched 200 years ago by Thomas Jefferson’s family was blown away a few years back after genetic evidence showed that Jefferson almost certainly fathered Sally Hemings’s final son, Eston, born in 1808. This led historians to conclude that Jefferson fathered all of her children in a relationship that lasted more than 35 years.”
In a July 25, 2003 article, Staples had put it somewhat differently, saying that, “Leading historians who doubted this have done an about-face since genetic evidence linked Jefferson to one Hemings child. There is a growing consensus that Jefferson fathered most, if not all, of Sally’s children, just as Madison Hemings claimed in a now-famous newspaper interview published in 1873.”
Smearing Thomas Jefferson
These charges are so wild as to constitute a deliberate lie. It is a lie that has been cited by the liberal media for two reasons. One, they wish to smear the reputations of America’s founders. And two, the charge serves to excuse or divert attention from the sexual misconduct of one of their favorite liberal presidents, Bill Clinton. But it’s just not true. The well-documented book, “The Jefferson-Hemings Myth: an American Travesty” concludes that, contrary to the way the matter has been portrayed by the media, there is no substantial evidence at all to support the charge that Thomas Jefferson had a relationship with Sally Hemings. In fact, the best evidence indicates it never happened, and that his younger brother, Randolph, was the father.
It looks like the Times did not learn its lesson in the Jayson Blair scandal.
In another major embarrassment, the Times also recently published an obituary for veteran dancer and actress Katharine Sergava. But she wasn’t dead.
In this case at least, the Times corrected the error.