Ask any journalist to name the most disreputable figure in his profession, and one name immediately comes to mind—the late New York Times reporter, Walter Duranty. Duranty is known for reporting on the Ukrainian famine precipitated by Joseph Stalin in the early Thirties. As head of the Times’s Moscow bureau, Duranty covered up the deaths of hundreds of thousands of peasants and perversely ran false reports written from Moscow about the success of Soviet agricultural policy. More dismaying is that his reporting from Moscow won him the very first Pulitzer Prize given to The New York Times for its foreign coverage in 1932.
The announcement of the prize proclaimed, “Mr. Duranty’s dispatches show profound and intimate comprehension of conditions in Russia and of the causes of those conditions. They are marked by scholarship, profundity, impartiality, sound judgment, and exceptional clarity, and are excellent examples of the best type of foreign correspondence.” Reading those words today makes one think that either the Pulitzer Prize committee of that time was willfully blind or perhaps just stupid: Everything Duranty wrote was, in reality, the very opposite of the features it singled out for praise.
Let us skip ahead to the Seventies when the world learned—at first from the scholar Robert Conquest, and then from others—about the reality of the starvation and decimation of the Ukrainian people as a result of Stalin’s Five Year Plan. That revelation didn’t stop the Times that year from listing in its pages all the Pulitzers it had earned with Duranty’s name appearing at the top, as if the paper’s publishers remained proud of his discredited coverage. As the Times was subjected to increasing pressure to do something about this travesty, the editors decided to investigate and report on the question of whether or not the paper should remove Duranty’s name from the list, and, in effect, hand back the 1932 Pulitzer to the Pulitzer Board. Had they done that, it would have meant that the paper fully acknowledged the fraudulent nature of the thirteen articles and two magazine stories for which Duranty was given the most coveted prize in journalism.
The Pulitzer Prize committee of that time was willfully blind or perhaps just stupid: Everything Duranty wrote was, in reality, the very opposite of the features it singled out for praise.
In 2003, the paper asked Mark von Hagen, Columbia University Professor of Russian History, to review Duranty’s work. Professor von Hagen concluded that Duranty “frequently writes in the enthusiastically propagandistic language of his sources,” and that there was “a serious lack of balance in his writing.” A good deal “of the ‘factual’ material,” he wrote in his study of Duranty’s dispatches, “is dull and largely uncritical recitation of Soviet sources, 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.”
Turning to the main reason why he thought that the Times should turn down the award, von Hagen wrote that the “lack of balance and uncritical acceptance of the Soviet self-justification for its cruel and wasteful regime was a disservice to the American readers of The New York Times and the liberal values they subscribe to and to the historical experience of the peoples of the Russian and Soviet empires and their struggle for a better life.” In an interview with the paper after he handed in his report, von Hagen added that the paper’s publisher should “take it away for the greater honor and glory of the New York Times,” since Duranty was a “disgrace” in the paper’s history.
But the paper’s editor and publisher still refused to hand back the award. The Executive Editor at the time, Bill Keller, agreed that “the work Duranty did . . . was credulous, uncritical parroting of propaganda.” Yet, Keller asserted that as a reporter who had himself covered the Soviet Union for the paper in the late Eighties to 1991, “the notion of airbrushing history kind of gives me the creeps.” Keller’s rationale makes no sense whatsoever. In no way did giving back the award cause Duranty’s dispatches to be airbrushed from history. His reports remain in the archives of the Times and are accessible to anyone. The paper’s official statement did not make sense either. The paper’s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., agreed that all of Duranty’s work was false and completely “discredited.” He noted that had Duranty spoken to “ordinary Russians,” he would have found out the truth. To examine what Russians thought, Sulzberger noted, Duranty quoted “not a single one—only Stalin.” Yet, the paper passed the buck to the Pulitzer Board, noting that it too had not rescinded the award. If the Pulitzer Board did not find it embarrassing, why, then, should the Times? Finally, Sulzberger invoked a meaningless, indeed the most mundane, excuse: “The Times,” the publisher wrote, “does not have the award in its possession.”
Like the newspaper, the Pulitzer Board commissioned its own study of Duranty’s work. For some reason, it took the board six full months to investigate the issue, and on November 21, 2003, they announced that they would not revoke the prize it gave Duranty in 1932. The Board’s logic says a great deal about how it functions. First, it acknowledged that “by today’s standards for foreign reporting [Duranty’s reporting] falls seriously short.” Noting that his reports on the Ukrainian famine of 1932–33 “have been criticized as gravely defective,” the board went on to argue that “a Pulitzer Prize for reporting is awarded not for the author’s body of work or for the author’s character but for the specific pieces entered in the competition.” The board said it focused only on the thirteen articles handed to them by the paper, and, finding no problem with the entries, concluded that the award would stand.
Most egregious was the Pulitzer Board’s statement, easily disproved, that “there was not clear and convincing evidence of deliberate deception, the relevant standard in this case.” That, of course, was patently false. Even when Duranty was alive, Malcolm Muggeridge had written in his dispatches that millions had died in the Ukraine. As correspondent in Russia for the Manchester Guardian, and once a fellow traveler himself, Muggeridge later wrote the following about Duranty:
There was something vigorous, vivacious, preposterous, about his unscrupulousness which made his persistent lying somehow absorbing. I suppose no one . . . followed the Party line, every shift and change, as assiduously as he did. In [the Soviet censor’s] eyes he was perfect, and was constantly held up to the rest of us as an example of what we should be.
The British journalist Gareth Jones also questioned the veracity of Duranty’s coverage. Had the Times looked in its own archives, it would have found Jones’s letter to the editor directly challenging Duranty’s reporting. In a letter published on May 13, 1933, Jones wrote that he visited many Russian villages, and “heard the cry, ‘There is no bread, we are dying,’ and that there was famine in the Soviet Union, menacing the lives of millions of people.” Duranty “cabled a denial of the famine” and replied that Jones’s judgment was based on a forty-mile “tramp through villages.” He too, Duranty wrote, had asked Soviet leaders about these allegations and had come to the conclusion that there was no famine, and only food shortages.
Jones had in fact made three different visits to Soviet Russia and had traveled to twenty villages in the Ukraine, the black earth district, and outer Moscow. He spoke to consuls and foreign representatives, all of whom backed up his reports. As Jones noted, journalists had to deal with censors. Hence, to quote Jones, “they give ‘famine’ the polite name of ‘food shortage’ and ‘starving to death’ is softened down to read as ‘widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition.’”
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Duranty’s dishonest reporting was also evident in his coverage of the Stalin show trials of 1936 and 1937. Of course, he was not alone in telling gullible western readers that the trials had proved the guilt of all those old Bolsheviks accused of conspiracy against the state by the Stalinists. That job was carried out by the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union Joseph Davies whose bestselling 1941 book, Mission to Moscow, informed the American public that Stalin had destroyed very real conspiracies hatched against him by the Bolsheviks’ founding fathers.
The ignorance of Davies, of course, does not excuse Duranty’s own gullibility. For example, on January 24, 1937, Duranty watched Georgy Pyatakov, one of the accused, testify. Pyatakov may have “looked like a professor,” Duranty wrote, but “what he told was a tale of black treason in act and intent.” His testimony was not that of a “hysterical confession of a despairing fanatic, but a detailed recital of conspirative action . . . more convincing than the indictment.”
In a dispatch from February 14, 1937, Duranty reported that “Trotskyists abroad” were attacking the Soviet regime but had “drawn a red herring across the trial in the form of a story about a ‘new and ruthless purge of the Communist party from top to bottom.’” Duranty explained to Times’ readers that the purges simply meant “cleansing,” which had “occurred periodically in the Communist party since the earliest days.” The “cleansing” was simply a matter of Party members having their “fitness” judged to see if they were worthy of being Communists.
“It is obvious and reasonable to suppose,” he explained, “that a minute investigation is being conducted of former oppositionists, especially Trotskyists.” After all, he continued, “When men so high placed as Piatakoff, Radek, Sokolnikoff and Lifshitz are sentenced as traitors it is only nature that other former oppositionists fall under suspicion.” True to form, Duranty told readers, “The majority of persons now being investigated will probably get a clean bill of health” since the “Trotskyists’ conspiracy” is made up of “numerically few.”
During the second round of the purge trials, Duranty complained in a January 30, 1937 dispatch that it was a shame “that no documentary evidence was produced in open court” that verified the espionage that the prosecutors claimed had taken place by men in high positions. Yet, he assured readers, “the trial did ‘stand up’ and should go far” to prove that “Trotsky is now revealed before the workers of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the rest of the world as an ally of fascism and of a preparer of war and therefore, definitely finished as a force of international importance.”
Duranty also supported the death sentence handed down to men like Pyatakov. As he told readers, “There is no middle choice. . . . He [Pyatakov] knowingly organized a counter revolutionary group” that attempted sabotage and murder, “an unpardonable sin.” It evidently did not occur to Duranty that the Soviet regime produced no documentary evidence for the would-be treason because they had none.
What, one must ask, led a reporter like Duranty to engage in such blatant propaganda for the Stalinist regime, and to offer his observations on its behalf to American readers as truth? Duranty went so far as to praise the secret police as a body that did not torture and that was committed to the truth. The reason the accused confessed was not that he was tortured, but rather because Russians had been given “sufficient proof” at the trials of his crimes. The forced confessions were simply a Russian “unburdening of the soul” similar to the confession made by individuals in the Catholic Church.
On another occasion, in a major February 1937 Times Magazine article, Duranty sought to explain what lay behind the conflict between Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin. The piece could have been written by Stalin’s most loyal henchman for Pravda or Izvestia (which brings to mind the old Soviet joke: “There’s no truth in Pravda and no news in Izvestia”). After Lenin died, Duranty explained, Stalin listened to the masses, while Trotsky engaged in “intrigue and conspirative cabals.” Stalin was not surprised, Duranty wrote, since Trotsky had started as a Menshevik rather than as a Bolshevik, and he had always attacked Lenin’s major ideas, while Stalin supported them. This explanation is not only completely false, but simply parrots the official Stalinist explanation of the conflict almost verbatim.
Any of the myriad examples one can draw from Duranty’s reporting fully justifies the title his biographer S. J. Taylor gave him in her 1990 work, Stalin’s Apologist: Walter Duranty: The New York Times’s Man in Moscow. The book gives readers a rather unpalatable portrait of the man.
For instance, we learn from Taylor of Duranty’s membership in a sadistic cult led by Aleister Crowley, who called himself “the Beast,” or “Beast 666,” the anti-Christ predicted in the Book of Revelation. Claiming to be a dark magician, he arrived in Paris to practice black arts and sexual rituals, which soon captivated the young Duranty, living in Paris in the days before World War I. Here, with Crowley, Duranty partook of opium while engaging in sexual acts with as many women as he could muster to his side.
Had Duranty spoken to “ordinary Russians,” he would have found out the truth. To examine what Russians thought, Sulzberger noted, Duranty quoted “not a single one—only Stalin.”
His foray into journalism began with World War I, during which he covered the Belgian front. At the war’s end, he reported on the Paris Peace Conference. Sent to the Balkans, Duranty was appointed Moscow correspondent of the Times in 1921. In Moscow, Duranty quickly learned that the way to prosper and get notoriety was to ingratiate himself with Moscow’s rulers. He traveled in an American Buick that was driven by a Soviet chauffeur.
The delighted Kremlin rulers saw to it that, at a time of horrendous deprivation, he was given his own rather luxurious apartment, where he lived with his mistress and their child. By Western standards, it was not much, but, as Taylor writes, “in Moscow in those days it was unwonted luxury.” When regular Russians had to share apartments with multiple families, Duranty had his own that included a separate bedroom, dining room, and private office, as well as a personal telephone.
When he returned to the United States in 1933—after the false famine reports had appeared and he had won his Pulitzer—FDR welcomed him to the White House, in a move meant to provide backing for the President’s desire to have the United States recognize the Soviet Union and develop formal diplomatic relations with it. Duranty was the star at the official dinner for the amiable first Soviet Ambassador to the United States, Maxim Litvinov. “At last,” Taylor puts it, “he was reaping his reward.” Fifteen-hundred major industrial and political leaders dined at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City in support of recognition of the Soviets. When Duranty was introduced to the prestigious audience, they rose from their chairs and cheered.
Returning to Moscow, Duranty was summoned to the Kremlin by none other than Stalin himself, who gave him an exclusive interview on Christmas of 1933. Stalin told him:
You have done a good job in your reporting the USSR, though you are not a Marxist, because you try to tell the truth about our country and to understand it and explain it to your readers.
Duranty may have kept his Pulitzer, but the praise heaped upon him by the Soviet tyrant is the single most damning indictment of his reporting. Stalin’s tribute to Duranty—if indeed Stalin actually said those words; Duranty may have made them up—paints the Times’s man in Moscow as nothing more than a propagandist, doing the Kremlin’s job in America better than any of its own paid agents could have done.
Editor’s note: We’d like to call your attention to the Walter Duranty Prize for Journalistic Mendacity, the details of which can be found in an advertisement in this issue.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 10, on page 87
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