By Howard Kurtz, Washington Post Staff Writer
The Washington Post, Washington, D.C.
Thursday, October 23, 2003
The executive editor of the New York Times said yesterday that the
paper has no objection if the Pulitzer Prize board wants to revoke an award
granted to one of its reporters 71 years ago.
Stepping into a simmering controversy over whether Walter Duranty
deserved the prize for his largely favorable reporting on Joseph Stalin's
Soviet Union, Bill Keller said the paper has notified the board that the
considers Duranty's work "pretty dreadful . . . . It was a parroting of
After a review conducted by a history professor, Keller said, the
Times essentially told the board in a letter that "it's up to you to decide
whether to take it back. We can't unaward it. Here's our assessment of the
guy's work: His work was clearly not prizeworthy."
Columbia University professor Mark von Hagen said he found that the
Moscow correspondent's 1931 work "was a disgrace to the New York
Times. There's no one there who disagrees with me. They acknowledged
that his is some of the worst journalism they ever published."
The Pulitzer board, which is based at Columbia, has been reviewing
Duranty's 1932 award for months. Sig Gissler, the board's administrator,
said that "this is a confidential internal review and it's ongoing" but
declined to elaborate.
Duranty has been posthumously under fire for years for whitewashing
Stalin's murderous excesses. Von Hagen, confirming a report in the New
York Sun, said he was "appalled that the New York Times had a reporter
like this who continued to write Stalinist justifications for what was going
The Times ordered the study soon after Howell Raines resigned as
executive editor in June, in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal. The paper
had previously maintained that there was no point in revisiting ancient
Keller said the Times has long since stopped defending Duranty and
posted a note next to his picture in the paper's Pulitzer hallway saying
that many people had discredited his work.
But the board may face a dilemma. As Keller noted, the prize was
awarded for Duranty's work in 1931, which was mostly about Stalin's
economic plan and interviews with the Soviet leader. But Duranty is
notorious in historical terms for grossly understating the massive famine
that killed millions in the Ukraine in 1932-33, during the forced
collectivization of Soviet farms.
A 1933 article by Duranty was headlined "Famine Toll Heavy in
Southern Russia." The lead, however, said: "The excellent harvest about
to be gathered shows that any report of a famine in Russia today is an
exaggeration or malignant propaganda."
Said Keller: "The stuff he wrote in '31 was awful. The stuff he wrote
in '33 was shameful. If the Pulitzer board wants to say you can have your
prize revoked for subsequent behavior, that's their right." But he said
other prize-winners might face similar complaints.
The Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, which has led the
protests against Duranty's prize and likened it to the Blair saga, says that
more than 15,000 postcards and letters have been sent to the board.
Von Hagen's study said Duranty's 1931 reporting was "distorted" and
displayed a "lack of balance and uncritical acceptance of the Soviet
self-justification for its cruel and wasteful regime." The report added that
"several foreign correspondents fell under Stalin's spell to a certain
extent, as Duranty clearly did, especially if they had been granted the
privilege of an interview with the great man."
The Pulitzer board decided to examine the Duranty case in April,
before Blair's fabrications surfaced. The board looked at the matter once
before, in 1990, after publication of "Stalin's Apologist," a book by S.J.
Taylor that accused Duranty of covering up for Stalin's brutal regime.
At the time, the board said in a statement, it gave "extensive
consideration to requests for revocation of the prize to Mr. Duranty --
which would have been unprecedented -- and decided unanimously
against withdrawing a prize awarded in a different era and under different
The Washington Post, Washington, D.C., Thursday, October 23, 2003
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