When a friend posted a link to a New York Times graphic gone all wrong – it labeled Arizona as Nevada and Minnesota as Wisconsin – my mind went back to another time when the NYT got the story all wrong… and won a Pulitzer for it.
Walter Duranty went to the USSR back in 1921 and lived there until 1934, but continued to spend several months a year in Moscow. He interviewed Stalin in 1929 and that just made everyone fawn all over him. It made his name, so to speak. Just like the New York Times has “a name.”
That’s a huge problem in humanity. We are quick to grant vast leeway and place incredible trust in those names. The worst offenders in the recent banking panic were the big “names” of Wall Street. Some of the biggest “names” among Civil War generals weren’t necessarily the best generals… but their memoirs were the most popular. We are too quick to trust in a king, a pope, or a president simply because of the position the man holds, without knowing a shred of truth about the man in that position.
What’s worse are the people that help perpetuate that cult of greatness. Walter Duranty picked up a Pulitzer in 1931 for some articles that were to journalism what t-ball is to major league baseball. You can find them linked from the Wikipedia article on Duranty. For every criticism, there are a dozen praises for Stalin’s regime. Of particular note to me was Duranty’s assertion that minority problems in the USSR were a thing of the past, thanks to the overarching bonds of Communist Party unity.
As Duranty wrote those, Stalin was already plotting the genocide of those minorities. His plan for the Jews in Russia was long-term: collect them in the Far East in a remote enclave on a spur of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, then sever the rail links when they were all there. They would all starve to death there. World War Two postponed that action, and Stalin’s death in 1953 canceled it entirely – but he was set to kick it off in 1954 or 1955. But there was another Holocaust that Stalin was gearing up for. His target was Ukraine, and like his plan to liquidate the Jews, involved starvation. The Holocaust of Ukraine is also known as The Holodomor.
When it started, Duranty denied it was happening. After it happened, Duranty denied it ever took place – in public. Privately, he admitted up to ten million may have perished in the famine. But his private confession did nothing to tarnish the reputation of the man he had built up in order to win his Pulitzer. His public lies kept up the good PR for Stalin, when Stalin had done nothing to deserve such praise.
Duranty’s reports even undermined his own paper’s editorial views on Russia. While the op-ed men wrote of Stalin’s horrors, Duranty’s ace reporting made it seem like the USSR was just a few roller coasters shy of being a true worker’s paradise. Thanks to Duranty and men that followed in his wake, we in the USA turned a blind eye to the deliberate starvation in the Ukraine and seriously contemplated becoming more like the USSR.
To this day, the New York Times still keeps Duranty’s Pulitzer in its trophy case. Its own editors have since disparaged and discredited Duranty’s work and the paper hired a historian to research the accuracy of Duranty’s work. The historian found Duranty’s reporting to be so many fluff pieces on Stalin and said the Pulitzer committee should take the prize away. The Pulitzer guys, however, decided that Duranty’s reporting wasn’t deliberately misleading and that the prize should stay with the NYT. The Times shrugged its mighty, named shoulders and kept the prize, presumably against its will.
Granted, the prize was awarded for a series of articles on Russia and not Duranty’s Holocaust denial. All the same, it was another case of the Pulitzer going to the best work of fiction to be passed off as news. The Times admits the reporting was terrible, but left it up to the prize committee to decide whether or not to revoke it. That’s unacceptable.
I mean, how hard would it be for the Times to get some bubble wrap and a box and ship the award back to where it came from? Or if the Pulitzer committee refuses to take delivery, how about shipping it to Kiev for the next Holodomor Remembrance Day? And if they don’t want it, there’s the Holodomor Memorial in DC. The Times has many more options than sitting on its hands and keeping a Pulitzer they themselves admit has no validity.
Duranty helped Stalin to tell the Big Lie time and time again – he made a name for himself in so doing. He made it possible for the Holodomor to be denied, and for those who denied it to be esteemed as plausible scholars and journalists. Worse, he showed the way for journalism to become subservient to the prevailing powers and to grow fat from the crumbs that fell off the table. Journalism needs to be about viewing the men and women in power through a critical eye and holding them to account. If the Times were to send back that prize, it would be a powerful signal that it was not willing to accept the idea of journalism as propaganda for the powers that be and that it was on the side of the powerless, who all too often wind up as pawns in the grand schemes of the rich and powerful.
Or is the Times not ready to send that signal? Sure, it can distance itself from the toady reporting of the past, but is it ready to make that break in the present?
Which then begs the question, how much of our news is actually news as opposed to being carefully-orchestrated propaganda?