OPINION by John V. Fleming,
The Daily Princetonian, Princeton University,
Princeton, New Jersey, Monday, February 2, 2004
Newsmakers are again making the news, and the British Left is in a state
of consternation. They had hoped that the report of Lord Hutton, a British
judge who has been conducting an independent inquiry into certain aspects of
the run-up to the Iraqi invasion, would expose Tony Blair as a scoundrel.
But Lord Hutton seems to think that the scoundrels are in the BBC,
which first reported, falsely, that Blair's agent had "sexed up"
uncompelling intelligence concerning the threat of Saddam's "weapons of mass
destruction," and then indignantly and stubbornly defended the unfounded
claim that the government "probably knew" their intelligence was phony. The
chairman of BBC's board of governors did the decent thing and resigned.
Yet it seems a little odd that this should be the front-page story. It
turns out, actually, that there were no "weapons of mass destruction," but
what the hell, we got rid of Saddam Hussein. And there were plenty of -
well, some, a couple - "WMD program related activities." Don't laugh: that
may be enough to reelect George Bush. Surely the demonstrable incompetence
of the intelligence relied upon by Bush and Blair, taken together with their
judgment in relying upon it, should in itself be sufficiently alarming to
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But there is a certain journalistic appetite, apparently independent of
ideological proclivity, that is unsatisfied with reporting mere foolishness,
however flagrant, and insists upon exposing knavery, however nonexistent.
In this instance the BBC - which unctuously denies a cultural and political
bias that most of the rest of us can spot a quarter mile off without field
glasses - has by becoming the news gotten in the way of the news.
In my view the news is not that George Bush with great cleverness
and political adroitness effected a war in Iraq. The news is that the war
came about with not much cleverness at all, though crucially enabled by
the political spinelessness of elected officials who alone have the
constitutional right to declare war.
Both the power of the press and the unscrupulous deployment of that
power are remarkable features of the modern world. Though in academic
mythology, the most villainous thought criminals are the "fascist" Hearst
and his modern heir Murdoch, journalistic malfeasance knows no party.
The NY Times calls the current flap about the BBC "one of the worst
journalistic debacles in the 78-year history of the network." But the Times
has just shamefacedly buried a far worse one of its own.
One of the Pulitzer Prizes awarded in the category of journalism in the
year 1932 went to Walter Duranty of the New York Times "for his series of
dispatches on Russia, especially the working out of the Five Year Plan."
Duranty was already among the best-known foreign correspondents in the
world, and the more or less acknowledged dean of the large group of European
and American journalists stationed in Moscow, at that time among the most
prestigious of foreign postings.
Though now largely forgotten, except by a small group of knowledgeable
people who for the most part despise his memory, he was a modest pioneer in
a mode of journalism increasingly fashionable: the newsman who hovers
between reporting and making the news. He may have been instrumental, and
was certainly at the least incidental, in persuading the Roosevelt
government to give formal recognition to the Soviet Union in 1933.
Lying is relatively easy, but it is easier yet for a reporter to be
dishonest by not saying something. In the years 1932 and 1933 the Soviet
government under Stalin's leadership murdered by intentional starvation
between a million and ten million of its citizens. The exact number cannot
be calculated, but it certainly rivals and possibly eclipses the Nazi
hecatomb. One would never have known that from reading the Times, since
their Pulitzer ace didn't think it news fit to print. Duranty summed up his
attitude toward the systematic "liquidation of the kulaks as a class" in an
aphorism: "You can't make an omelette without cracking eggs."
The omelette was the imaginary economic triumph of the Dictatorship of
the Proletariat. The eggs were the millions of very real peasants who
objected to being returned to serfdom by "socialism." Several of his more
courageous contemporaries did tell the truth about the famine, and even the
truth about Duranty. Since then several scholarly studies of the
"Holomodor," as the staged famine is known, have been published, as also the
excellent biography of Duranty entitled "Stalin's Apologist." But the Times
appears to have been roused to worry about a possible blot in its
journalistic 'scutcheon only as recently as last year, when they
commissioned a special investigator from the journalism faculty at Columbia
to look into all this.
Pulitzer Prizes are not like epaulettes; and it is apparently impossible
to strip ideological poltroons in the manner of disgraced military officers.
Mr. Duranty will keep his prize with him in the grave. But anyone who edits,
writes for or merely reads a newspaper should fully appreciate the
distinction between the news stories and the oped page. Such, at any rate,
is my opinion.
John V. Fleming is the Louis W. Fairchild '24 professor of English.
His column appears on Mondays.
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