Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Doubting the Pulitzer

Journalists and newspaper reporters of all stripes dream of winning the famed Pulitzer Prize. Walter Duranty did, in 1932, for his work as a New York Times reporter in Russia - at that time, the Soviet Union. Duranty's articles were detailed and well-written. They were also wrong: when millions died in the famine, or series of famines, which Joseph Stalin orchestrated to press his people into submission, Duranty assured American readers that there was no famine!

When, many years later, Duranty's falsehoods, written as propaganda to support the Soviet Union in the eyes of journalists and their audiences, his reputation was ruined. No longer regarded as a serious reporter, he was seen seen as someone who had deliberately lied to millions of Americans. Whether he did so because he believed in Stalin and wanted to support him, or because he had been paid by the Soviet government, is not clear.

In any case, the question arose: should his Pulitzer Prize be retracted? In 2003, the Pulitzer committee conducted several meetings to review the case. They wrote:

In recent months, much attention has been paid to Mr. Duranty's dispatches regarding the famine in the Soviet Union in 1932-1933, which have been criticized as gravely defective.

Although Duranty wrote many articles over several decades, the prize had been awarded specifically for thirteen articles in the newspaper and two in a magazine:

In its review of the 13 articles, the Board determined that Mr. Duranty's 1931 work, measured by today's standards for foreign reporting, falls seriously short. In that regard, the Board's view is similar to that of The New York Times itself and of some scholars who have examined his 1931 reports.

Although the Pulitzer committee found Duranty's work to be substandard, the worst examples of his falsified articles were written after 1931, while the prize was given for the work written in 1931. It was decided not to retract his prize, but rather to make a corrective statement:

The famine of 1932-1933 was horrific and has not received the international attention it deserves.

The Pulitzer committee wanted to accomplish three things: make a statement about the severity of the famine and the blatant ignoring of it by the media, rebuke Duranty for his negligence, and yet let the rebuke suffice instead of actually withdrawing his prize.

By its decision, the board in no way wishes to diminish the gravity of that loss. The Board extends its sympathy to Ukrainians and others in the United States and throughout the world who still mourn the suffering and deaths brought on by Josef Stalin.

In any case, the fact remains that a Soviet Communist dictator starved millions of his own people to death, and an America reporter refused to let the world know.