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The arrogance
of Pinch Sulzberger

No one alive today at the New York Times should be held accountable for the gross journalistic sins committed by one of the paper’s foreign correspondents over 70 years ago. To do so would be like holding a child accountable for the crimes of his father.

But the refusal of the Pulitzer board to rescind the undeserved prize awarded for those sins, and the refusal of the New York Times to return or disavow that prize, is not only an affront to the Ukrainian people whose ancestors suffered and died under the atrocities of Josef Stalin, but also to the brave reporters stationed in Russia who actually reported the truth about Stalin’s regime in 1931.

That was the year Times reporter Walter Duranty wrote a series of 13 articles about Stalin’s Russia that won him the Pulitzer Prize. Duranty’s work, said the Pulitzer board in 1932, showed “a profound and intimate comprehension of conditions in Russia.” Consider the following excerpts from three of those Pulitzer Prize-winning articles:

Stalin is giving the Russian people – the Russian masses, not Westernized landlords, industrialists, bankers and intellectuals, but Russia’s 150,000,000 peasants and workers – what they really want, namely, joint efforts, communal effort. And communal life is as acceptable to them as it is repugnant to a Westerner.

– “Red Russia of Today Ruled by Stalinism, Not Communism” (June 14, 1931)

Although there have been cases of regional frictions and sporadic difficulty, the system on the whole seems to work more smoothly than any organization of a heterogeneous state yet devised by man.

– “Stalinism Solving Minorities Problem” (June 26, 1931)

[T]here is no more time for argument or discussion or even freedom in the Western sense, for which Russia cares nothing, because, in short, a house divided against itself cannot stand in an hour of stress.

– “Stalinism’s Mark is Party Discipline” (June 27, 1931)

“The stuff he wrote in ’31 was awful,” Times Executive Editor Bill Keller said recently. But there’s even more to the story. While in Moscow, Duranty became known for his “lavish hospitality.” He was provided generous living quarters, a chauffer and the use of a car equipped with a Klaxon horn used by KGB. A woman name Katya served as his cook, secretary and mistress, and even bore him a son.

While the editors of the New York Times were blindly publishing Duranty’s work, Duranty’s contemporaries saw right through him. According to a recent report by the Columbia Journalism Review, Eugene Lyons, a correspondent for United Press International, suspected that Duranty was on the Soviet payroll. Malcolm Muggeridge, a reporter for the Manchester Guardian, would call Duranty “the greatest liar of any journalist I have met in 50 years of journalism.” Columnist Joseph Alsop, a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune in the early 1930s, also held no punches, calling Duranty a “fashionable prostitute” in the service of communists. Other reporters of the period were also getting the Stalinist story right, including William Stoneman of the Chicago Daily News and Ralph Barnes of the New York Herald Tribune.

You need a final straw? According to a 1931 State Department memo written by the American ambassador to Germany, Duranty openly admitted that, by virtue of an agreement between the New York Times and the Soviet government, all of his dispatches reflected the Soviet’s official position.

So what’s the controversy? The man should never have received the award to begin with. In 1981, when a Pulitzer had been awarded to a reporter who made up her story about an 8-year-old heroin addict, the Pulitzer board withdrew the prize without controversy. What’s the difference here?

Earlier this year, Times publisher Arthur “Pinch” Sulzberger, in a childish reaction to recent calls for the return of the Duranty Pulitzer, said the Times didn’t have the award, so it couldn’t return it. He needed to be reminded that, years earlier, his father offered to “give it back” if the evidence suggested Duranty didn’t deserve the prize.

As the controversy continued to brew, the Times hired Columbia University history professor Mark von Hagen to make an independent assessment of Duranty’s award. Sulzberger must have been stunned when von Hagen recommended last month that the prize be rescinded. “That lack of balance and uncritical acceptance of the Soviet self-justification for its cruel and wasteful regime,” the professor wrote, “was a disservice to the American readers of the New York Times.”

Earlier, Sulzberger had written a letter to the Pulitzer board, not offering to rescind the award, or even leaving the decision to the conscience of the board. Sulzberger actually threatened that, if the board voted to rescind the award, the Times would brand the action a Soviet-style “airbrush” of figures purged from history.

Professor von Hagen responded with a scathing letter to the editor published by the Times on Nov. 13, 2003. “Those targeted for ‘airbrushing’ were already murdered,” he said. “Airbrushing was intended to suppress the truth about what was happening under Stalin. The aim of revoking Walter Duranty’s prize is the opposite: to bring greater awareness of the potential long-term damage that his reporting did for our understanding of the Soviet Union.”

Portraits of all 89 Pulitzer Prizes awarded to the paper, including that of Walter Duranty, still hang in the long hall leading to the executive dining room at the Times headquarters in New York. It was not only within the Times’ power to rescind or disavow the award on its own accord, it could have encouraged the Pulitzer board to rescind it, or at very least, the Times could have taken down the portrait.

What Sulzberger needed to do here, symbolically or otherwise, was to remove the disgrace Duranty brought upon the Times, apologize to the Ukrainian public (who partly blame the Times and Duranty for the suffering of their ancestors) and, finally, and perhaps most important, commemorate the work of the reporters stationed in Russia who were telling the world the truth about Stalin in 1931.

If anyone was acting like Stalin, it was Pinch Sulzberger, using his position to bully the Pulitzer board into opposing rescission – if they refused, the “newspaper of record” was prepared to accuse the board of engaging in one of the very behaviors for which Stalin was despised. A spineless Pulitzer board backed down – they refused to rescind. Sulzberger got what he wanted. Party discipline was accomplished.

Now, when Pinch gets off the elevator on the 11th floor of the New York Times building and walks down the hall to lunch with his board of directors, he can look up to that monument on his wall and revel in his own self-importance. Pinch Sulzberger, like Walter Duranty, is a man whose convictions had triumphed over the truth. This is exactly what’s wrong with today’s New York Times and it is now quite clear who is responsible for it.