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Amid a devastating reporting scandal in the wake of which two top editors have resigned, the New York Times faces the possible loss of its 1932 Pulitzer Prize.
Times reporter Walter Duranty won the award more than 70 years ago for his reporting on the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin’s communist regime. But several Ukranian-American groups, as part of their commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Ukranian Famine, are asking the Pulitzer board to revoke Duranty’s award, arguing that the correspondent’s sympathy for Stalin caused Duranty to ignore millions of deaths.
Indeed, the Pulitzer board is considering doing just that, reports the New York Sun. In April, the committee launched a review of Duranty’s work.
Malcolm Muggeridge, the celebrated author and journalist, was one of the few able to get into the famine-ravaged lands of the U.S.S.R. and report on what he saw during that era. Later, Muggeridge described Duranty as “the greatest liar of any journalist I have met in 50 years of journalism.”
Critics have long said that because of Duranty’s manipulation of the news to placate Soviet authorities – especially Stalin – the scope of horror wrought by the communists in the pre-war U.S.S.R. was not fully comprehended until many years later. As a result, the public could not really gauge what communism was capable of, and what kind of man Stalin actually was. Robert Conquest’s book “Harvest of Sorrow” and B.J. Taylor’s “Stalin’s Apologist” dissect Duranty’s alleged journalistic misdeeds.
Ignored the deaths of millions
Stalin’s man-made famine of 1932-33 was perhaps the largest mass killing in human history, likely surpassing even Hitler’s extermination campaigns. It stretched from the Ukraine to Kazakstan in Central Asia – nearly 2,000 miles. Despite the extent and barbarity of the campaign, however, it didn’t provoke Duranty to action.
The ongoing struggle between the Moscow government and small farmers in various regions who resisted collectivization of the land led to Stalin’s planned famine, to force his will on those regions, as well as to destroy Ukrainian nationalism.
In reality, the great terror-famine wasn’t caused by poor harvests or inadequate food supplies. In fact, during the 1932-33 famine the Soviet Union actually exported food.
Publicity regarding the famine would have damaged the image of the U.S.S.R., Stalin, and the spread of communism.
When occasionally reports of the famine were actually published in the Western press, contradicting reports quickly neutralized the original report and diluted their effect. Of all those involved in famine disinformation, Duranty, as Moscow correspondent for the prestigious New York Times, proved one of the most useful.
In 1932, Duranty wrote that there was no famine, nor “is there likely to be.” Yet in September 1933, Duranty detailed to British diplomats how many had died and where: The North Caucasus and Lower Volga had lost 3 million people in the past year; Ukraine lost 4 to 5 million, and the total, Duranty stated, could be as high as 10 million.
For years, the media watchdog group Accuracy in Media has sought to set the record straight regarding Duranty, his reporting and his Pulitzer – the most coveted and honored award in journalism. A.I.M. approached both the Times and the Pulitzer Prize administrator about the issue. In a 1999 letter, Reed Irvine, chairman of A.I.M., pointed out that Duranty received special favors from Stalin’s government, including a car and a mistress, designed to ensure the correspondent’s cooperation.
Stating, “Trust in journalists and the media is at a low ebb,” Irvine challenged the Pulitzer Prize administrator to meet the same standard as the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. In 1992 the Academy revoked a 1989 Grammy given to a musical group that later was found not actually to have sung its own lyrics.
No action was taken on the Duranty case at that time.
In the Pulitzer Prize’s 86 years of existence, no award has ever been revoked, said an Associated Press account of the current review by the Pulitzer board. The Washington Post surrendered Janet Cooke’s 1991 award voluntarily after she admitted fabricating stories.
Michael Sawkiw Jr., president of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, said more than 15,000 postcards and thousands more letters and e-mails were sent to the Pulitzer Board.
“Exactly like Jayson Blair, the heart of all this is journalistic integrity and ethics,” Sawkiw told AP, referring to the disgraced Times reporter who falsified and plagiarized dozens of stories.
“Like any significant complaint, we take them seriously,” Sig Gissler, the Pulitzer board administrator, responded in the AP account. “They are under review by a board subcommittee, and all aspects and ramifications will be considered.”
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