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the reporter received should be rescinded because of his "lack of balance"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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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