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In a previous Insight story and in other articles on the campaign to take away New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty’s 1932 Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the Soviet Union because it has been proved to be deliberately fraudulent, it has been written that no Pulitzer has ever been revoked or withdrawn. It is stated that the Washington Post returned the Pulitzer awarded Janet Cooke in 1981, but that no action was taken by the Pulitzer Prize board.
“Although the Pulitzer has never been revoked, it was once returned,” said the Associated Press in a story about the Duranty controversy in June.
The earlier report was based on a comment from the Pulitzer board, but Insight now has confirmed that the board did indeed withdraw Cooke’s Pulitzer Prize, setting a possible precedent for action that could be taken in the Duranty case. And it should be noted the Post story on April 16, 1981, revealing that Cooke had made up “Jimmy,” the 8-year-old heroin addict who was the subject of her Pulitzer-winning series, opens with this lead paragraph: “The Pulitzer Prize Committee withdrew its feature-writing prize from Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke yesterday after she admitted that her award-winning story was a fabrication.”
After Insight brought this story to the attention of Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, he looked into the matter and turned up a 1981 Pulitzer press release. The release, faxed to Insight, says that while the Post did reveal to the Pulitzer committee that Cooke fabricated her source, it was the board that made the decision to withdraw the Pulitzer.
“The Post’s executive editor, Benjamin C. Bradlee, sent a telegram to members of the Board saying that Miss Cooke could not accept the award and resigned from the newspaper,” says the 1981 press release from Columbia University, which administers the Pulitzer Prize. “The board withdrew her prize. It was the first time in the 65-year history of the Pulitzer Prizes that an award was withdrawn because a story was false.”
Gissler tells Insight that after Bradlee sent his telegram the members of the Pulitzer board immediately were polled by telephone and decided to withdraw the award. Gissler downplays the discrepancy, saying that whether the prize was returned or withdrawn is “largely a difference of semantics.” And he still maintains that this is not the same as revoking the award, as critics of Duranty are asking the board to do regarding the 1932 Pulitzer, since Cooke technically had not accepted the prize.
But to Michael Sawkiw Jr., president of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, which is particularly critical of Duranty’s cover-up of Josef Stalin’s intentional starvation of the Ukraine in the 1930s, this new revelation means a precedent has been set as to how the Pulitzer Prize board deals with fraudulent reporting when it is exposed concerning a prizewinner. He contends the same standards applied to Cooke ought to be applied to Duranty.
“This does set a precedent for the false reporting of Walter Duranty, who, along with his newspaper, was in league with Josef Stalin,” Sawkiw said.
John Berlau is a writer for Insight magazine.
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