The Great Famine-Genocide in Soviet Ukraine (Holodomor)

Including Walter Duranty of the New York Times

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 the press.

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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.