Duranty's Deception
Posted July 7, 2003
Insight on the News

By John Berlau

Duranty intentionally misreported that there was no forced famine in the Ukraine when, in fact, millions were dying as a result of Stalinís starvation policy.

Reeling from a scandal involving alleged plagiarism and false reporting from former star reporter Jayson Blair, the New York Times is relying heavily on its carefully cultivated reputation for decades of integrity and objectivity in reporting. Even though its two top editors resigned in disgrace, Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. is telling shareholders and readers that this is a minor blemish for a newspaper that historically has held to the "highest standards of integrity and journalism."

With the famously liberal paper citing its history to try to redeem its image, critics are taking the opportunity to hold the Times accountable for the journalistic crimes of its star foreign correspondent of 70 years ago. They cite the cover-up by Pulitzer Prize-winner Walter Duranty of mass murders and other atrocities ordered by Josef Stalin in the former Soviet Union. Despite evidence even the Times does not dispute which shows Duranty knew well that millions were being starved to death at the very time he used the newspaper to deny Stalin's forced Ukrainian famine, the Times has refused to return the prize he won in 1932 for his Soviet reporting. In fact it still displays Duranty's work in an in-house exhibit honoring the paper's Pulitzer Prize winners.

"The Jayson Blair incident really put the Times out there in terms of journalistic integrity of one of its correspondents, and we're looking at this as an inroad into the New York Times to speak about the atrocities Walter Duranty knew about but unfortunately did not write about," says Michael Sawkiw Jr., president of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, which has led the drive to convince the Times to return the award and persuade the Pulitzer Prize board to revoke it. "When it comes to journalistic integrity and ethics," Sawkiw says, "anything that is written that undermines those ideals should be categorically denounced, and any prize or honor associated with publication of the offender should be given back."

In the last few months, the Pulitzer board has received thousands of postcards, letters and e-mails from Ukrainian-Americans and others concerned about failure of the Times to come to grips with Duranty's misreporting. The board has responded by forming a special subcommittee to review whether the prize awarded to Duranty should be revoked. "All aspects and ramifications will be considered," said Pulitzer Prizes administrator Sig Gissler in a June statement.

While Gissler says the board never before has revoked a Pulitzer Prize, there is a precedent for one being returned. In 1981, Janet Cooke of the Washington Post was awarded a Pulitzer for her vivid story of an 8-year-old, inner-city, crack addict called "Jimmy." But it later turned out that Jimmy existed only in Cooke's imagination. The Post came clean and returned the Pulitzer.

The Times, however, says it already has done enough penance for the intentional misreporting. It claims that along with the exhibit of Duranty's Pulitzer Prize in its hallway display, there is a caveat that states, "Other writers in the Times and elsewhere have discredited this coverage." An e-mail sent to Insight by Catherine Mathis, vice president of corporate communications at the New York Times Co., explains: "The Times has not seen merit in trying to undo history" by returning the Pulitzer. The e-mail insists: "The Times has reported often and thoroughly on the defects in Duranty's journalism, as viewed through the lens of later events."

But Duranty's reporting was not just "defective" when "viewed through the lens of later events." It was in fact fraudulent and was contradicted by many of his contemporaries in the 1930s. Yet it wasn't until the late 1980s, as the Soviet Union was imploding, that the Times was in the least critical of Duranty's reports, as many scholars of the former Soviet Union note. They also question the Times' sincerity in the matter of Duranty's reporting, arguing that even today a strain of anti-anticommunism pervades the paper's editorial page and much of its news reporting. They wonder to what extent this explains why the Times has been reluctant to return the Pulitzer.

"I've written a few columns about the Times' love affair with communism, and I'm being somewhat sarcastic," says Ronald Radosh, a historian whose works concluding that the Rosenbergs and other suspects were indeed Soviet agents were bashed by the Times through the years but have been vindicated by the opening of the Soviet historical archives. "The Times constantly over the years makes unadulterated heroes of the victims of the blacklist. In their obituaries they always present communists in a positive light. The Times seems to have lost any critical faculty when writing about the issue of communism. They would never publish glowing obituaries for dead Nazis and fascists as they do for dead communists." A recent Times obituary of novelist Howard Fast, for example, insisted that he was a victim of the 1950s blacklist without also noting that at the time he was an ardent Stalinist. He was a member of the Communist Party.

The newspaper makes much of the fact that in 1986 it gave a largely favorable review to Robert Conquest's The Harvest of Sorrow, which depicted the horrors of the Stalin-engineered Ukrainian famine that killed more than 7 million people in the 1930s and criticized Duranty's reporting for covering it up in the United States. Citing Duranty, Times reviewer Craig Whitney euphemized that "poor performance by some Western correspondents helped Stalin spread the lie."

Yet, as Conquest notes in his book, just three years earlier the 1983 annual report of the New York Times Co. listed, along with other honors of which the Times is proud, Duranty's 1932 Pulitzer Prize for "dispassionate, interpretive reporting of the news from Russia." Conquest, himself a Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities, also points out that many other newspapers and journalists got the story right at the time. "In spite of everything, full or adequate reports appeared in the [British papers] the Manchester Guardian and the Daily Telegraph; [the French papers] Le Matin and Le Figaro; [the Swiss papers] the Neue Zuericher Zeitung and the Gazette de Lausanne; La Stampa in Italy, the Reichpost in Austria and scores of other Western papers," he writes. "In the United States, wide-circulation newspapers printed very full firsthand accounts by Ukrainian-American and other visitors (though these were discounted as, often, appearing in 'right-wing' journals); and the Christian Science Monitor, the New York Herald Tribune (and the New York Jewish Forwaerts) gave broad coverage." The now-defunct Chicago American even ran pictures of the pale, skeletal Ukrainian children and the fields littered with corpses.

And Duranty's reporting was filled with more than just "defects," the phrase in the Times' 2003 apologies. It contained information that, by several accounts, he knew to be false. The Soviets did keep tight control over foreign journalists, but Duranty offered Stalin his eager cooperation. In 1933, at the height of the famine, Duranty wrote that "village markets [were] flowing with eggs, fruit, poultry, vegetables, milk and butter. ... A child can see this is not famine but abundance." Reports such as these were crucial, historians say, in the decision of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to grant the Soviet Union diplomatic recognition in 1933. But a British Embassy dispatch from 1933, reported in Conquest's The Harvest of Sorrow and then in S.J. Taylor's definitive 1990 Duranty biography, Stalin's Apologist, quotes Duranty as admitting to British Embassy officials in Moscow that "the Ukraine had been bled white [and] the peasants were 'double-crossed' by the government." In his words, it was "quite possible that as many as 10 million people may have died directly or indirectly from lack of food in the Soviet Union during the past year."

Little wonder Malcolm Muggeridge, one of the courageous left-wing journalists who reported the truth about the famine and who later became a famous author, editor, humorist and playwright, called Duranty "the greatest liar of any journalist I have met in 50 years of journalism."

Yet, even half-a-century later, Duranty's newspaper still was not ready to expose the nature of Stalin's big lie. In the 1986 book review the Times sent Insight conceding that, yes, there was a famine because of Stalin's collective agriculture policies, and maybe Duranty actively covered it up, the reviewer still argued against the view of Conquest and almost every other professional historian that Stalin deliberately was trying to kill off the Ukraine's small farmers. "Far more debatable is the thesis that the famine was specifically aimed as an instrument of genocide against the Ukraine," reviewer Whitney wrote, criticizing Conquest for tangential use of a book published by Ukrainian emigrés as a source.

In 1988 the bipartisan Congressional Commission on the Ukraine Famine would vindicate Conquest, using the word "genocide" (which Conquest actually did not use, calling it a "terror famine") to describe the policy of deliberately killing off the Ukrainian kulaks. A joint resolution from both houses of the U.S. Congress ratified the commission's conclusion, and in 2003 a House bill to establish a memorial to the victims referred to the deliberate starvation as "the famine-genocide in the Ukraine." This bill was cosponsored, among others, by Democratic Reps. Dennis Kucinich and Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, and Nita Lowey of New York - all devoutly on the political left. Evidence that Stalin's collectivization policies were intended to wipe out all the Ukraine's traditional small farmers includes the facts that the Soviet government confiscated nearly all food from a bumper Ukrainian crop, turned down aid from international relief organizations and refused to let the Ukrainian peasants flee to obtain food.

"The Ukrainians were nationally conscious, and they understood what freedom means," Sawkiw explains. "For them to give up their land for this collectivization campaign meant that they had to give up a part of themselves, meant that they were giving up a part of their being as a nation. So they were very nationally conscious, and that's why Stalin specifically targeted the [Ukrainian] peasants" to be starved to death.

Ironically, even as the Times continues to downplay the horrors of the Ukrainian famine in which so many millions were killed, its representatives argue that it doesn't matter because Duranty's Pulitzer was awarded for stories published in 1931, before they say the famine was noticeable. "Duranty's prize was given for a specific set of stories in 1931, not in 1932 or 1933 when the famine in Ukraine struck with full force," the Times e-mail states. In letters and statements, Pulitzer administrator Gissler has taken a similar line. Yet in a Times column the paper sent with the e-mail, author Karl E. Meyer states, "The biggest Duranty lapse was his indifference to the catastrophic famine in 1930-31 [italics added]." The evidence in Stalin's Apologist, published by the prestigious Oxford University Press, and other authoritative accounts, shows Duranty toed the communist line from the moment the Times assigned him to the Soviet Union in 1921. In one of his first stories for that year, about the infamous New Economic Policy to get the West to build the communist economy, Duranty gushed that "[Vladimir] Lenin has thrown communism overboard ... abandoning state ownership, with the exception of a definite number of great industries of national importance - such as were controlled by the state in France, England and Germany during the war [World War I]."

As Harvard historian Richard Pipes wrote in his book Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime, Duranty's stories stressing "Lenin's alleged adoption of Western economic models ... was very important for Moscow to convey at a time when it actively sought foreign credits."

An early supporter of Stalin, Duranty wrote for the Times until 1941and never wavered in his defense of the Soviet dictator, even defending horrendous atrocities such as the completely transparent show trials. A short, bald Englishman with a wooden leg, Duranty appears to have been handsomely rewarded by the Soviets for his loyalty. Taylor reports that his four-room Moscow apartment was stocked with vodka and caviar, and that he employed a chauffeur, a maid and a cook who became his mistress.

In 1953, after the death of Stalin, Duranty came briefly out of retirement to write a page-one obituary for the Orlando Morning Sentinel, in which he hailed Stalin for "lift[ing] himself and [his followers] to such heights of strength and influence as few mortals have ever known." His health declined steadily, and four years later he died from an internal hemorrhage complicated by pulmonary emphysema at the age of 73. "It was as if, with Stalin's death, Walter Duranty had nothing left to say," Taylor wrote.

And Sawkiw points to new evidence of a formal agreement that Duranty, and possibly the Times itself, had with the Soviet Union concerning news coverage. In his new book, U.S. Intelligence Perceptions of Soviet Power 1921-46, historian Leonard Leshuk, citing State Department memos, writes, "In June 1931, Duranty admitted to A.W. Kleiforth of the U.S. Embassy in Berlin that, 'in agreement with the New York Times and the Soviet authorities,' his official dispatches always reflect the official opinion of the Soviet regime and not his own." Sawkiw sees this as the smoking gun. "This proves his errors were errors of commission," the Ukraine scholar says. None of the articles on Duranty that the Times sent to Insight to make its case so much as noted this new evidence.

Radosh and other critics say that while the Times argues it is not returning the prize because it does not want to "undo history," the paper in fact is trying to cover up its own history of helping launch communist regimes that systematically oppress their people. Times correspondent Herbert Matthews was instrumental in Fidel Castro's rise to power in Cuba through dispatches calling the future communist dictator "the rebel leader of Cuba's youth" and asserting that "thousands of men and women are heart and soul with Fidel Castro." As former Times reporter John Corry recalled in his memoirs, My Times, "Castro's people in Havana obtained thousands of reprints of Matthews' articles and mailed them all over Havana. Perfectly ordinary Cubans who had not thought about Castro before read that he was now their new leader. ... [T]he White House and State Department listened."

When Corry wrote an article in which communists looked bad, he incurred the wrath of editors and prestige reporters. Corry recalls a 6,500-word piece he wrote in 1982 exposing a disinformation campaign launched by the communist government in Warsaw that claimed Polish emigré novelist Jerzy Kosinski was a CIA agent and didn't write his own books. The article produced angry reactions from veteran Times reporters David Halberstam and Harrison Salisbury. "How could you?!" Corry recalls Halberstam yelling at him.

When it comes to protecting the left the Times apparently has a double standard. For instance, it recently ran an editorial-page explanation backing away from a fine series of stories by Jeff Gerth and James Risen alleging that Los Alamos nuclear-lab employee Wen Ho Lee might be a Chinese spy, even though Lee pleaded guilty to some of the related charges. But it has yet to publish an explanation of Matthews' stories lionizing and promoting Castro.

Even today, this enormously powerful U.S. newspaper continues to harp on McCarthyism without holding American communists accountable for their active infiltration of U.S. institutions and support for brutal regimes, Radosh says. He recounts an incident in 1991 when, he says, he was commissioned to write a review of Guilty by Suspicion, a movie about the Hollywood blacklist of communists in the 1950s. Radosh was critical of the film, saying it did not reveal that many of those blacklisted were ardent supporters of Stalin. The Times spiked his review but ran an article by Victor Navasky of the far-left Nation magazine attacking Radosh's unpublished piece. "They didn't even run the two pieces side by side," says Radosh, whose piece eventually ran in the conservative American Spectator. (Although a letter from Radosh protesting Navasky's use of his words was published in the Times, Mathis tells Insight that "None of the editors I discussed this with had a recollection of the events you described.")

More recently the Times ran an editorial claiming that historians who were writing about the now-definitive linking of the American Communist Party to the Soviet Union were trying to rehabilitate the reputation of Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.). "We were not trying rehabilitate McCarthy," Radosh says. "We were trying to separate McCarthyism from anticommunism and show the validity of anticommunism, and they, of course, totally mixed the two together and attacked us without us having a say in the matter."

In her new best-selling book, Treason, conservative Ann Coulter notes that when the Venona Project was declassified and intercepted, Soviet cables were seen to prove that many long-suspected government officials such as Alger Hiss were indeed Soviet spies as charged. She found through a database search that not one article on Venona ever appeared on the front page or editorial page of the New York Times, and only 13 articles in the Times since the 1995 revelation have so much as discussed Venona.

Indeed, on the 50th anniversary of the Rosenbergs' execution this June, the Times ran an editorial saying they were not "as guilty as the government alleged," despite Venona and tons of evidence to the contrary. "They still want to give them the benefit of the doubt and say they were well-meaning and what they did wasn't bad," Radosh says. "In truth, Julius [Rosenberg's] KGB control [officer] said he was one of the most effective Soviet spies. I thought it was an outrage."

Radosh doesn't expect the Times' blind spot for communism to change overnight, but he says at the very least it ought to try to right historical wrong by returning Duranty's infamous Pulitzer. "Ostensibly, prizes like the Pulitzer are given for solid, serious journalism that has proven responsible," he says. "What Duranty did is so far more dangerous and scurrilous than what Janet Cooke did that it's crazy to say they shouldn't give back the Pulitzer Prize."

Joseph Goulden, author of a book on the New York Times, crusaded for years in the 1980s and 1990s as director of media analysis for the journalistic watchdog group Accuracy in Media to get the paper to return the Duranty Pulitzer. Now, with the Blair scandal, he says, critical mass finally may be building. "It's sitting there at the Times stinking like rotting garbage," Goulden tells Insight. And if they don't give it back, Radosh says, the New York Times should at least add another caveat to its display. "What they should say is that the Times did not give back this Pulitzer, because the Times loves getting Pulitzers, even though Duranty was a propagandist for Stalin and everything he wrote was a lie."

John Berlau is a writer for Insight magazine.