- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 4, 2003

In an act of historic justice, a historian at Columbia University has recommended that the Pulitzer board revoke the prize awarded the New York Times’ once celebrated and now infamous Walter Duranty. He won it in 1932 for his glowing reports from, yes, Josef Stalin’s Russia.

The Times’ man in Moscow would go on to gloss over Stalin’s plan to starve the Ukraine’s peasants into collectivization. No one could deny the plan worked. The peasants starved, lands were seized and gigantic, inefficient state farms replaced productive small holdings.

If you had set out to achieve disaster, kill millions, cripple the economy and terrorize an entire nation, you couldn’t have come up with a better plan. Stalin was a bloody genius at that sort of thing. Very bloody. Only China’s Mao Tse-tung was better at it.

In the pages of Pravda and the New York Times, the peasants were transmuted into rich, exploitative landowners who deserved their fate. Kulaks, they were called. In practice, a kulak was anybody with a cow some Bolshevik wanted.

At last, uncertain toll, this feat of social engineering cost an estimated 7 million innocent lives.

But you would never have guessed it from Walter Duranty’s sunny dispatches in the Times. (“Russians hungry, but not starving” — the New York Times, March 31, 1933.)

It’s not as if Walter Duranty didn’t know what was really going on. But he also knew that, if he wanted to assure access to his sources in Moscow, he had better stick to the party line, which he devoutly did. It worked. By 1929, he had already been granted an exclusive interview with Stalin himself.

It was a classic case of sources using the newspaperman instead of the other way around — a common and still honored practice.

After all, not till Saddam Hussein fell did CNN admit it had covered up various of his atrocities in order to keep its news bureau in Baghdad. This isn’t ancient history we’re talking about but current events.

It wasn’t just the famine in Ukraine that Walter Duranty prettified. To go back and read his coverage of the Soviets’ show trials in the ‘30s is to find yourself in an Orwellian fantasy in which every lie is true, every forced confession voluntary and every executioner “a harsh judge but a just one.” When one of the accused in Stalin’s purges commits suicide, that is only proof of his guilt.

In short, there was no crime the New York Times’ man in Moscow couldn’t rationalize. “The future historian will probably accept the Stalinist version” of events, Mr. Duranty assured Times’ readers.

How could he have known the future would be a free one, and a historian named Mark von Hagen of Columbia University would analyze his dispatches and conclude Duranty “frequently writes in the enthusiastically propagandistic language of his sources,” and — masterful understatement — “there is a serious lack of balance in his writing.”

Lack of balance? There was little if any balance.

To read Duranty’s dispatches now is to plow through one grim joke after another:

“Stalin is giving the Russian people — the Russian masses, not Westernized landlords, industrialists, bankers and intellectuals, but Russia’s 150 million peasants and workers — what they really want, namely, joint efforts, communal effort.” — the New York Times, June 14, 1931.

In short, “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” Yes, Duranty actually used that hoary line. In the Times of March 31, 1933.

Much to its credit, The Times itself took the lead in revising the historical record, hiring the historian who now has recommended that the Pulitzer Board revoke Duranty’s award. The board has declined to do so before, but the truth grows ever harder to ignore.

What next? Will the Times ask the Pulitzer Board to take note of the tricky way its Maureen Dowd used a handy ellipses to make George W. Bush say something he never did? Well, maybe 70 years from now, when Maureen Dowd is about as well remembered as Walter Duranty is now. These things take time.

The Times has set a noble example in this instance, and we who have had such sport with its slanted coverage should salute it on this redemptive occasion. Let’s hope its example spreads. This is good news.

Think of the possibilities. Somebody needs to send a clip of this story to the Nobel Committee, which needs to reconsider the prize it gave Henry Kissinger for bringing “peace” to Vietnam. He never had the grace to return that award — even after his co-winner, the North Vietnamese representative, sent his back. (And they say communists have no honor.)

Then there’s the Nobel Prize for, yes, peace that was awarded to, hold your sides, Yasser Arafat.

And so fraudulently on. So little time, so many awards to revoke.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner.

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