In the annals of 20th-century journalism, few names are more ignominious than Walter Duranty. The New York Times’ Moscow correspondent during the 1920s and 1930s, Duranty was by all accounts a liar, a recycler of propaganda and a willful apologist for one of history’s bloodiest tyrants, Joseph Stalin.
Back in 1932, however, he was the toast of Western elites, having won a Pulitzer Prize for 13 articles filed from Russia the previous year. According to the selection committee, his dispatches were “excellent examples of the best type of foreign correspondence.”
Duranty’s prize has long been the subject of intense controversy. Last spring the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association (UCCLA) initiated a campaign to urge its revocation by the Pulitzer Prize Board. After six months of consideration, the board decided on Nov. 21 not to rescind the prize. It concluded that the pieces in question, while they fell well below “today’s standards for foreign reporting,” showed “no clear and convincing evidence of deliberate deception.”
The board tacitly acknowledged that Duranty covered up the widespread Soviet famine of 1932-33, which claimed the lives of several million in Ukraine alone. But it isolated Duranty’s famine-denying articles from his Pulitzer articles on Stalin’s Five-Year Plan. “A Pulitzer Prize for reporting is awarded not for the author’s body of work or for the author’s character,” the board explained, “but for the specific pieces entered in the competition.”
This argument is understandable. No matter how odious Duranty’s morals and reprehensible his treatment of the famine—while denying it in print, he privately told British diplomats in September 1933 that as many as 10 million people had starved to death—the fate of his 1932 prize should ultimately rest upon the strength of the writing for which it was won.
Yet by any conceivable measure, Duranty’s reporting in 1931 was an utter failure. “It reads like Pravda and Izvestiya in English,” historian Mark von Hagen tells me, citing two of the leading Kremlin press organs of the time. Von Hagen, Professor of Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian History at Columbia, was commissioned by the Times this summer to conduct an independent study of Duranty’s 1931 coverage of the Soviet Union.
“Much of the ‘factual’ material is dull and largely uncritical recitation of Soviet sources,” he wrote in his subsequent eight-page report, “whereas his efforts at ‘analysis’ are very effective renditions of the Stalinist leadership’s self-understanding of their murderous and progressive project to defeat the backwardness of Slavic, Asiatic peasant Russia.”
Was this propagandizing unintentional, as the Pulitzer Board seemed to imply? No one can say for sure. But it’s hard to imagine that a man who would spend the next two years deliberately concealing a genocidal famine was a paragon of integrity in 1931. Moreover, Duranty’s sources were almost exclusively Soviet authorities. Would he really have been naive enough to trust their veracity so blindly?
In the early 1930s there were few Western correspondents in Russia, and members of the Pulitzer committee, like most other Americans, would have deferred to the Times as somewhat authoritative on all matters Soviet. Many have speculated whether Duranty’s editors were aware of the gross deficiencies in his journalism. Again, it’s tough to tell, although Sally J. Taylor’s 1990 book Stalin’s Apologist alleged that several editors considered Duranty a Soviet stooge.
Since the publication of Taylor’s book, the Times has distanced itself from Duranty’s work. In a review of the book, then-editorial board member Karl Meyer wrote that Duranty’s Soviet pieces represented “some of the worst reporting to appear in this newspaper.” That same year (1990), the Times placed a disclaimer next to Duranty’s framed picture in its Pulitzer hallway, noting: “Other writers in The Times and elsewhere have discredited this coverage.” Executive editor Bill Keller recently told the Washington Post that the 1931 articles were “awful,” “a parroting of propaganda” and “clearly not prizeworthy.”
Even still, in an interview with his own newspaper Keller expressed unease at the idea of Duranty’s Pulitzer being revoked. “As someone who spent time in the Soviet Union while it still existed,” he said, “the notion of airbrushing history kind of gives me the creeps.” Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. also warned the Pulitzer Board against evoking such a “Stalinist practice.” (Neither he nor Keller specified how the board’s rescinding a journalism prize on account of documented fraud was at all comparable to a Stalinist purge.)
Sulzberger added that the board should avoid “setting a precedent for revisiting its judgments over many decades.” Yet the slippery-slope argument is not very compelling here. Consider that in December 2002, Columbia University rescinded Michael Bellesiles’s Bancroft Prize after it was discovered that his award-winning book, Arming America, relied on fabricated sources. Were the Pulitzer Board to revoke Duranty’s prize, it would not threaten past Pulitzer winners any more than the rescinding of Bellesiles’s award threatened previous Bancroft winners.
Bottom line: Duranty’s is an extraordinary case of second-hand propaganda masquerading as real journalism. Rarely, if ever, has a Western reporter so consistently trumpeted the party line of a brutal dictatorship. It is perhaps too much to hope that the Times would voluntarily “return” Duranty’s prize, as the Washington Post returned Janet Cooke’s prize in 1981. And yes, no Pulitzer has ever been outright revoked. But it’s hard to fathom another instance where the Pulitzer Board has made, or will make, such an egregious, indisputable error in judgment.
By passing up a chance to right a seven-decade-old wrong, the board tarnishes its image. As Canadian academic Lubomyr Luciuk, the UCCLA’s research director, tells me, its members have effectively “become apologists for Stalin’s apologist.”
But hey, at least that’s better than “airbrushing,” right?
Duncan M. Currie ’04 is a history concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.