By William Goodwin, Daily Trojan Online, Vol. 150, No. 64
Daily Newspaper of the University of Southern California
Los Angeles, California, Tuesday, November 25, 2003, on page 4
In the 1930s, Walter Duranty was at the top of Soviet Russia. Head of the
New York Times' Moscow bureau, the journalist had access to the highest
circles of Soviet elite.
At one point, he was even granted an interview with Joseph Stalin himself,
an incredible breach of the cloak of security that surrounded the Communist
In 1931, Duranty wrote a series of 13 articles that eventually won him a
Pulitzer Prize. By 1932, a famine rooted in Soviet collectivization, begun
in 1929, was striking down millions in the Ukraine. Duranty continued to
write glowing articles that propounded the efficiency and power of the
Soviet Union, actively denying any evidence of a famine.
Walter Duranty, 1945, University of Arizona
The incongruity of a journalist being given an award for doing propaganda
damage control of a Soviet disaster brings us to the present. In response to
pressure from Ukrainian activist groups earlier this year, the Pulitzer
Prize committee decided to review the award and possibly revoke it.
On Friday, the committee announced Duranty's work simply did not measure
up to "today's standards for foreign reporting."
Mark von Hagen, a well-regarded Columbia history professor, researched
the issue at the Times request.
He believed that the award should be negated. In his report, he stated that
the articles reflected bias and the "uncritical acceptance of the Soviet
self-justification for its cruel and wasteful regime had misrepresented
history and done a disservice to the paper's readers," according to the Nov.
The committee did not revoke the award.
Despite finding Duranty's work flawed and sub-par, the committee felt
denying the award now would set a dangerous precedent for reviewing awards
long after the fact, especially when the writers and editors involved may
not be able to respond to charges.
Moreover, they declared that the character and later works of a writer
should not be a determinant in giving an award that is based on specific
articles that should be reviewed for the merit of the written word alone.
In the abstract, that defense is sound, and in most cases, those fears might
be justified. However, given a closer historical examination and a look at
Duranty's actual words, the committee's decision is decidedly wrong.
Though it might already be assumed, Duranty was not the most vocal critic of
Stalin's regime. One didn't tar and feather Communist misdeeds and then rub
elbows with Uncle Joe.
In that regard, Duranty might have been no different than any number of
journalists who tempered their writing to ensure that they wouldn't be given
a one-way ticket to a salt mine somewhere west of the Ural mountains.
That's a regrettably time-honored practice, and reporters have been guilty
of such self-censorship right up to Eason Jordan and CNN in a pre-Gulf War
II Iraq. Duranty was not just another uncritical writer. He was an active
apologist for an execrable totalitarian.
He curried, and won, favor from a ruler who was responsible for, by the most
conservative estimates, 20 million deaths. It is more commonly claimed that
Stalin killed up to 60 million.
More specific to this argument is Duranty's reaction to the terrible famine
of 1932-1933. Millions of Ukrainians died. Duranty said it didn't happen.
Don't believe me; believe his words, as unearthed by Arnold Beichman, a
columnist for the Washington Times, while trolling through the Times'
As evidence of the famine grew increasingly hard to refute, Duranty changed
"You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs," he wrote on May 14, 1933.
He even managed to distinguish death fom malnutrition and death from
starvation, on March 31, 1933.
"There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation but there is
widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition."
Later in the year, though, he returned to outright denial.
"Any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant
propaganda," wrote Duranty on Aug. 23, 1933.
But assume that the articles in contention shouldn't be reviewed in the
context of Stalin or even in the light of Duranty's abysmal record as a
blatant liar and Tokyo Rose for the Soviet Union. Rather, say they should be
evaluated for whether they adequately told the story and whether there were
any grossly negligent omissions on the part of the reporter.
The committee already admitted that the actual content of Duranty's work was
undoubtedly flawed and doesn't merit the award by today's standards.
However, they make the odd distinction of demarcating the beginning of the
famine precisely in 1932, which would mean that Duranty's failure to mention
the imminent humanitarian crisis does not affect the works reviewed.
This line of thinking is refuted by Duranty himself, as he clearly was aware
of the looming famine in 1931, going so far as to deny its coming.
"There is no famine or actual starvation nor is there likely to be,"
according to his Nov. 15, 1931 article.
Carefully note the date, 1931. The Times and Pulitzer committee may very
well fear attacks that emerge long after the fact that don't give the
principals a chance to respond. In Duranty's case, though, they need not
His contemporaries saw the holes in his reporting. Malcolm Muggeridge, the
renowned correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, called him "the greatest
liar of any journalist I have met in fifty years of journalism."
Memoirs from the time, like those of Zara Witkin quoted by Beichman in
"Pulitzer-Prize winning lies" in the Weekly Standard on June 12, and a
number of historical accounts describe Duranty revealing that he was plainly
aware of the disaster in the Ukraine but intentionally omitted it from
Perhaps the most jarring note in this whole episode comes from Arthur
Sulzberger, Jr., publisher of the Times. In a letter sent to the Pulitzer
committee, he worried that pulling the prize conjured up the "Stalinist
practice to airbrush purged figures out of official records and histories."
Sulzberger gallingly argues that it would be Stalinist to condemn and
dissociate from a Stalinist.
So, it's better to continue the pretence that he is a deservedly lauded
writer. Critics have rightly pointed out that were Duranty a
Holocaust-denier, there would have been no question of whether to pull the
As it is, an ardent defender of communism, an ideology that has killed many
millions more than even Hitler and fascism, remains enshrined as an exemplar
of journalistic excellence.
William Goodwin's column "From the Rear Guard" runs on Tuesday. To comment
on this article, call (213) 740-5665 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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