The Pulitzer Prize board will not revoke Walter Duranty’s 1932 award for reporting on Joe Stalin’s Soviet Union. Earlier this year, the New York Times decided against returning the prize, despite an outside evaluation that Duranty’s reporting was “uncritical and unbalanced.” Publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., worried that doing so would be reminiscent of the Stalinist practice of “airbrushing” photos to remove purged officials. But advocates of revoking the prize said they want Duranty to be remembered for what he was: a shill for the Soviets.
The campaign to revoke the prize was orchestrated by a coalition of Ukrainian groups. The Ukrainians sought the action as a fitting commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the Stalin-induced Great Famine. The famine claimed between seven and ten million lives in 1932-33. Historians believe that Stalin induced the famine to wipe out Ukrainian separatism. Reporting from Moscow, however, Duranty dismissed stories about widespread starvation in Ukraine as “pure bunk” and “malignant propaganda.”
The Pulitzer board claimed that it had only examined thirteen articles written by Duranty in 1931 that had been submitted for its consideration. At the time, the board pronounced Duranty’s reporting as “the best type of foreign correspondence.” In a press release, it said it could find no “clear and convincing evidence of deliberate deception in Duranty’s reporting.”
But Ukrainians and others point out that the conditions for the famine had already been established by five years of agricultural collectivization. And there were already reports of famine in other regions of the Soviet Union. Throughout 1932 and ’33, Duranty ignored the increasing calamity in Russia’s breadbasket. Other reporters managed to uncover the truth of what was happening in Ukraine, however. Worse yet, Duranty attacked those reports as na?ve, exaggerations, or anti-Soviet propaganda. He attributed reports of widespread fatalities to “diseases due to malnutrition” but not to “actual starvation.”
Duranty is known to have lived lavishly during his tour in Moscow. His competitors suspected him of being on Stalin’s payroll, but that has never been proven. More infuriating to his critics are reports that Duranty did know the truth about the famine and other Stalinist horrors. And the evidence suggests that some of his Times’ editors questioned Duranty’s reporting. One review concluded that the Times ran editorials that contradicted his reporting and headlines for his stories were often harsher than his content.
A 1931 State Department memo reportedly portrayed Duranty admitting that the Times had struck a deal with Stalin that his reporting would faithfully follow Soviet propaganda. And that’s what makes this story relevant. The media have largely forgotten allegations by various correspondents that many news outlets struck a similar bargain with Saddam Hussein. In return for access, CNN and others downplayed or ignored evidence of Saddam’s brutality and reign of terror. Looks like nothing ever changes in the world of journalism after all.