The Great Famine-Genocide in Soviet Ukraine (Holodomor)

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TIMES SHOULD LOST PULITZER FROM 30's, CONSULTANT TO PAPER SAYS
  

By Jacques Steinberg, The New York Times
New York, New York, Thursday, October 23, 2003

A Columbia University history professor hired by The New York Times to make an independent assessment of the coverage of one of its correspondents in the Soviet Union during the 1930's said yesterday that the Pulitzer Prize the reporter received should be rescinded because of his "lack of balance" in covering Stalin's government.

The Times had asked the professor, Mark von Hagen, to examine the coverage of the correspondent, Walter Duranty, after receiving a letter in early July from the Pulitzer Prize Board seeking its comment. In its letter to The Times, the board said it was responding to "a new round of demands" that the prize awarded to Mr. Duranty in 1932 be revoked. The most vocal demands came from Ukrainian-Americans who contended that Mr. Duranty should be punished for failing to report on a famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in 1932 and 1933.

Walter Duranty, 1945, University of Arizona

In his report to The Times, Professor von Hagen described the coverage for which Mr. Duranty won the Pulitzer - his writing in 1931, a year before the onset of the famine - as a "dull and largely uncritical recitation of Soviet sources."

"That lack of balance and uncritical acceptance of the Soviet self-justification for its cruel and wasteful regime," the professor wrote, "was a disservice to the American readers of The New York Times and the liberal values they subscribe to and to the historical experience of the peoples of the Russian and Soviet empires and their struggle for a better life."

In his eight-page report, Professor von Hagen, an expert on early 20th-century Russian history, did not address whether the Pulitzer Board should revoke the award it gave to Mr. Duranty. Mr. Duranty died in 1957.

But in comments first published yesterday in The New York Sun, Professor von Hagen said he believed the board should indeed take such action. He echoed those remarks in an interview last evening with The Times.

"They should take it away for the greater honor and glory of The New York Times," he said. "He really was kind of a disgrace in the history of The New York Times."

That The Times regretted the lapses in Mr. Duranty's coverage was apparent as early as 1986, in a review of Robert Conquest's "The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine" (Oxford University Press). In the review, Craig R. Whitney, who reported for The Times from Moscow from 1977 to 1980, wrote that Mr. Duranty "denied the existence of the famine in his dispatches until it was almost over, despite much evidence to the contrary that was published in his own paper at the time."

Four years later, the author S. J. Taylor wrote in the Oxford book "Stalin's Apologist," a biography sharply critical of the correspondent, that Mr. Duranty had given little credence to the famine. In response, The Times assigned a member of its editorial board, Karl E. Meyer, to write a signed editorial about Mr. Duranty's work. Mr. Meyer concluded that the articles written by Mr. Duranty contained "some of the worst reporting to appear in this newspaper."

Around that time, in response to critics of Mr. Duranty's coverage, the Pulitzer Board began an inquiry into whether to rescind his Pulitzer, but ultimately decided to let the award stand.

This past July, after the Pulitzer Board began another inquiry, The Times engaged Professor von Hagen and forwarded his report on July 29. In a cover letter accompanying the report, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher of The Times, wrote that "over the past two decades, The Times has often acknowledged that Duranty's slovenly work should have been recognized for what it was by his editors and by his Pulitzer judges seven decades ago."

Mr. Sulzberger wrote that the newspaper did not have Mr. Duranty's prize, and thus could not "return" it. While careful to advise the board that the newspaper would "respect" its decision on whether to rescind the award, Mr. Sulzberger asked the board to consider two things. First, he wrote, such an action might evoke the "Stalinist practice to airbrush purged figures out of official records and histories." He also wrote of his fear that "the board would be setting a precedent for revisiting its judgments over many decades."

In an interview last night, Bill Keller, the newspaper's executive editor, said he concurred with Mr. Sulzberger.

"It's absolutely true that the work Duranty did, at least as much of it as I've read, was credulous, uncritical parroting of propaganda," said Mr. Keller, who covered the Soviet Union for The Times from 1986 to 1991.

And yet, Mr. Keller added, "As someone who spent time in the Soviet Union while it still existed, the notion of airbrushing history kind of gives me the creeps."


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