by Randolph T. Holhut, American Reporter Correspondent
The American Reporter, Vol. 9, No. 2,216W
November 1, 2003, Dummerston, VT
DUMMERSTON, Vt. - Before there was Jayson Blair, there was Walter Duranty.
While The New York Times has been justly embarrassed by its belated
discovery this year that Blair made up many of his news stories, the work of
Duranty - its Moscow correspondent during the 1920s and 1930s - remains the
biggest embarrassment in the Times' history.
Duranty won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his reporting from the Soviet
Union - reporting that covered up the many abuses of Josef Stalin's regime,
including the man-made famine in Ukraine that killed as many as 10 million
in 1932 and 1933.
Because Duranty's reporting was, in the words of Columbia University history
professor Mark von Hagen, a "dull and largely uncritical recitation of
Soviet sources," Duranty was rarely hassled by the Soviet government. He did
his work unimpeded while other journalists were expelled for telling the
truth about the Ukrainian genocide.
Conservatives have flogged the Duranty case for decades and have long tried
to get the Pulitzer Prize Board to revoke his award. The Times has for the
most part disavowed Duranty's work, although it still counts his Pulitzer
along with the 88 others that the paper has won over the years. But in light
of the damage done to the Times' reputation by the Blair scandal and the
increasing pressure on the Pulitzer Board to address the Duranty case, the
Times conducted its own investigation.
The result was the recommendation by von Hagen that Duranty's award should
be rescinded because of his "lack of balance and uncritical acceptance of
the Soviet self-justification for its cruel and wasteful regime."
Duranty's sins are well-documented and he deserves to be considered as one
of its prime scoundrels in the history of journalism. But von Hagen's
charges against Duranty - "a dull and largely uncritical recitation of
Soviet sources" that showed a "lack of balance and uncritical acceptance" of
the official line - could just as easily be applied to the people who have
to cover President Bush every day.
Can anyone honestly say that the President has gotten the hard-edged
coverage that President Clinton got? The answer is no.
We know the answer why. It's easier to talk about a president's penis than
it is to talk about a president's policies. President Bush may have lied to
the country about the need to invade Iraq, but by golly, he has kept his
pants zipped up and hasn't gotten sexual favors from interns.
But the relatively gentle treatment of President Bush goes beyond matters of
character or political bias. It comes down to one thing - access.
The Washington press corps goes along with the pronouncements of the Bush
administration for the same reason Duranty went along with the
pronouncements of Stalin's regime - to maintain access to their news
The Bush administration is as ruthless and disciplined when it comes to
dealing with the press as Stalin was. And when a reporter displeases the
White House, that reporter will quickly find himself on the outs. Who wants
to rock the boat and jeopardize a nice high-paying job like covering the
White House and lose out on those appearances on the Sunday talk shows?
Better to shut up and go along.
Is it any wonder that the sharpest, most tightly reasoned criticism of
President Bush comes from Paul Krugman, the Princeton economics professor
who writes a twice-weekly column for the Times? He can write truthfully
about the Bush regime because he's not stuck in the White House playing the
ridiculous game that reporters have to play to keep what's still regarded as
the most prestigious gig in American journalism.
"The vocabulary Krugman applied to the President bristled with words such as
'dishonesty,' 'lying,' 'mendacity,' and 'fraud,'" wrote Russell Baker in a
review of a new collection of Krugman's work, "The Great Unraveling: Losing
Our Way in the New Century," that appeared in the Nov. 6 issue of The New
York Review of Books. "Among political pundits, such language verges on the
taboo. As a class, political columnists do not shrink from the occasional
well poisoning, but on matters of etiquette they are conservative to the
verge of stuffiness, and they tend to view plain speech as the mark of the
Few Washington journalists want to admit that the emperor is as naked as the
proverbial jaybird. Sure, people like Krugman, Michael Moore, Molly Ivins,
Jim Hightower, David Corn, Greg Palast and Al Franken - all of whom have
best-selling books that tear apart the Bush agenda - are loudly yelling "No
clothes!" But these people are on the fringe of the debate writing books for
the people who either already know the arguments or have enough intellectual
curiosity to find out more about them.
The people who most need to know about why the Bush administration has been
one of the most ruinous calamities that has ever happened to America aren't
hearing about it. They aren't hearing about it because they get their
information from the corporate press. Most of the daily print and broadcast
media isn't interested in saying the President is a liar and a fraud unless
it is absolutely politically and economically safe to do.
That's the danger of access. It seduces a reporter into thinking he is
important and part of the political process. Soon, you lose your ability to
be objective and start viewing everything through the eyes of the people you
cover. The result is that the public loses out on the information they need
Would it have made a difference if Walter Duranty wrote truthfully about
Stalin and the Ukrainian famine he engineered? We don't know, anymore than
we know for sure whether truthful reporting about the ever-shifting
rationales for invading Iraq could've prevented the mess we find ourselves
in now. But truthfulness is better than mendacity and the public is better
served when its press tells the truth.
Randolph T. Holhut was a journalist in New England for more than 20 years.
He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached
The American Reporter, Vol. 9, No. 2,216W, November 1, 2003
FOR PERSONAL AND ACADEMIC USE ONLY