Walter Duranty

 

Ronald Radosh

 

Ask any journalist to name the most disreputable figure in their profession, and one name immediately comes to mind--the late New York Times reporter, Walter Duranty. Duranty is most well-known for his reportage of the Ukrainian famine created by Joseph Stalin in the early 1930’s, where he covered up the deaths of hundreds of thousands peasants as a fantasy and then perversely ran false reports written from Moscow about the success of Soviet agricultural policy. More dismaying is that his reporting from Moscow won him the very first Pulitzer Prize given to The New York Times for its foreign coverage in 1932.

 

The announcement of the prize given Duranty proclaimed that “Mr. Duranty’s dispatches show profound and intimate comprehension of conditions in Russia and of the causes of those conditions. They are marked by scholarship, profundity, impartiality, sound judgement, and exceptional clarity, and are excellent examples of the best type of foreign correspondence.” Reading those words today make one think that either the Pulitzer Prize committee of its day was willfully blind or perhaps just stupid, given that everything Duranty wrote was in reality the opposite of the features they singled out for praise.

 

Let us skip ahead to the 1970’s when the world learned, at first from the scholar Robert Conquest   about the reality of the starvation and decimation of the Ukranian people as a result of Stalin’s Five Year Plan, and later from others who verified Conquest’s work and deepened our knowledge. Each year when  the Times listed the Pulitizers earned for that year, one couldn’t help noticing Duranty’s name at the top of the list as if the paper’s publishers remained proud of his discredited coverage.

 

As the Times was subjected to increasing pressure to do something about this travesty, it decided to establish a blue ribbon commission that would investigate and report on the question of whether or not the paper should remove Duranty’s name from the list, and in effect, hand back the 1932 Pulitzer to the Pulitzer Board. Had they done that, it would mean that the paper’s publisher fully acknowledged the fraudulent nature of the thirteen articles and two magazine stories for which Duranty was given the most coveted prize in journalism.

 

The paper asked Columbia University Professor of Russian History, Mark von Hagen, to review Duranty’s work. Professor von Hagen concluded that Duranty “frequently writes in the enthusiastically propagandistic language of his sources,” and that there was “a serious lack of balance in his writing.”  A good deal “of the ‘factual’ material,” he wrote in his study of Duranty’s dispatches, “is dull and largely uncritical recitation of Soviet sources, whereas his efforts at ‘analysis’ are very effective renditions of the Stalinist leadership’s self-understanding of their murderous and progressive project to defeat the backwardness of Slavic, Asiatic peasant Russia.”

 

Turning to the main reason why he thought that The Times should turn down the award, von Hagen wrote that the “lack of balance and uncritical acceptance of the Soviet self-justification for its cruel and wasteful regime was a disservice to the American readers of The New York Times and the liberal values they subscribe to and to the historical experience of the peoples of the Russian and Soviet empires and their struggle for a better life.” In an interview with the paper after he handed in his report, von Hagen added that the paper’s publisher should “take it away for the greater honor and glory of the New York Times,” since Duranty was a “disgrace” in the paper’s history.

 

The editors, having asked von Hagen to make a report, acknowledged its validity in a signed editorial by a member of its editorial Board in 1990. Board member Karl E. Meyer called Duranty’s work “some of the worst reporting to appear in this newspaper.” Yet the paper’s editor and publisher still refused to tell the Pulitzer committee it was handing back the award. The Executive Editor at the time, Bill Keller, agreed that “the work Duranty did…was credulous, uncritical parroting of propaganda.” Yet, Keller asserted that as a reporter who covered the Soviet Union for the paper in the late 1980’s to 1991, “the notion of airbrushing history kind of gives me the creeps.”

Keller’s rationale makes no sense whatsoever. Stalinist airbrushing of purged once highly regarded Soviet leaders is hardly comparable to handing back a Pulitzer, for reports that stay in the archives of the Times, and that are accessible to anyone. In no way were his dispatches airbrushed from history.  Neither did the paper’s official statement make sense. The paper’s publisher agreed that all of Duranty’ s work was false, and was completely “discredited.” He noted that had Duranty spoken to “ordinary Russians,” he would have found out the truth at the time. Moreover, the publisher wrote that to examine what Russians thought, Duranty quoted “not a single one- only Stalin.” Yet, they passed the buck to the Pulitzer Board, noting that they too had not rescinded the award. If the Pulitzer Board did not find it embarrassing, why, then, should the Times? Finally, the publisher invoked a meaningless and the most mundane excuse: “The Times,” the publisher wrote, “does not have the award in its possession.”

 

Like the newspaper, the Pulitzer Board also commissioned their own study of Duranty’s work. For some reason, it took them six full months to investigate the issue, and on November 21, 2003, they announced that they would not revoke the prize it gave Duranty in 1932.  The Board’s logic says a great deal about how it functions. First, it acknowledged that “by today’s standards for foreign reporting,”  Duranty’s dispatches “falls seriously short.” Noting that in particular his future reports on the Ukranian famine of 1932-33 “have been criticized as gravely defective,” they went on to argue that “a Pulitzer Prize for reporting is awarded not for the author’s body of work or for the author’s character but for the specific pieces entered in the competition.” The Board said it focused only precisely on the thirteen articles handed to them by the paper, and finding no problem with the entries, concluded that the award would stand.

 

Most egregious was the Pulitzer Board’s statement, easily disproved, that “there was not clear and convincing evidence of deliberate deception, the relevant standard in this case.” That, of course, was patently untrue, since even when Duranty was alive, Malcolm Muggeridge, for one, had written in his dispatches that millions had died in the Ukraine.  So did the British journalist Gareth Jones. As correspondent in Russia for the Manchester Guardian, and once a fellow traveler himself,  Muggeridge later wrote the following about Duranty.

 

There was something vigorous, vivacious, preposterous, about his unscrupulousness which made his persistent lying somehow absorbing. I suppose no one…followed the Party line, every shift and change, as assiduously as he did. In [the Soviet censor’s] eyes he was perfect, and was constantly held up to the rest of us as an example of what we should be.

 

Gareth Jones even protested at the time Duranty wrote his dispatches, and had the Times looked in its own archives, they would have found his letter to the editor directly challenging Duranty’s reporting. In a letter published on May 13th, 1933, Jones wrote that he visited  many Russian villages, and “heard the cry, ‘There is no bread, we are dying,’ and that there was famine in the Soviet Union, menacing the lives of millions of people.” Duranty then “cabled a denial of the famine” and replied that Jones’ judgement was based on a forty-mile “tramp through villages.” He too, Duranty wrote, had asked Soviet leaders and had come to the conclusion that there was no famine, and only food shortages.

 

Jones had in fact made three different visits to Soviet Russia, had traveled to twenty villages in both the Ukraine and black earth district, and outer Moscow as well. He too spoke to consuls and foreign representatives, all of whom backed up his reports. As Jones noted, journalists had to deal with censors, and hence “they give ‘famine’ the polite name of ‘food shortage’ and ‘starving to death’ is softened down to read as ‘widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition,’” to the words Duranty used in protest of Jones’ dispatches.

 

At the same time Duranty was reporting from Moscow, the  work of courageous and truthful journalists  like Gareth Jones and Malcolm Muggeridge gives the lie to those who argue that the Pulitzer could not be returned, because the standards of the day were different.

   

Duranty’s dishonest reporting was evident from the start, in the years before the Ukraine famine. It can be seen as well in his coverage of the Stalin show trials in 1936 and 1937.  Of course, he was not alone in telling gullible western readers that the trials had proved the guilt of all those accused by the Stalinist machinery of state. That job was carried out by the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union,  Joseph Davies, whose best-selling 1941 book, Mission to Moscow, informed the American public that Stalin had destroyed very real conspiracies hatched against him by the Bolshevik’s founding fathers.

 

The ignorance of Davies, of course, does not excuse Duranty’s own gullibility.  For example, on January 24, 1937, Duranty watched Georgi Pyaktakov, one of the accused, testify. Pyakatov may have “looked like a professor,” he wrote, but “what he told was a tale of black treason in act and intent.” His testimony was not that of a “hysterical confession of a despairing fanatic, but a detailed recital of conspirative action, …more convincing than the indictment.”

 

In a later dispatch, on Feb.14, 1937, Duranty reported that “Trotskyists abroad” were attacking the Soviet regime but had “drawn a red herring across the trial in the form of a story about a ‘new and ruthless purge of the Communist party from top to bottom.’” Duranty explained to Times’ readers that the purges simply meant “cleansing…a milder word” that had “occurred periodically in the Communist party since the earliest days.” It was simply a matter of Party members having their “Fitness” judged to see if they were worthy of being Communists. Nevertheless, Duranty noted that “it is obvious and reasonable to suppose that a minute investigation is being conducted of former oppositionists, especially Trotskyists.” As he explained, “When men so high placed as Piatakoff, Radek, Sokolnikoff and Lifshitz are sentenced as traitors it is only nature that other former oppositionists fall under suspicion.”  True to form, Duranty told readers that “The majority of persons now being investigated will probably get a clean bill of health” since the “Trotskyists’ conspiracy” is made up of “numerically few.”

 

In yet another dispatch by Duranty on the second round of the purge trials, Duranty complained in a Jan 30, 1937 dispatch that it was a shame “that no documentary evidence was produced in open court” that verified the espionage conducted by “men in such high positions” that the prosecutors claimed had taken place. Yet, he assured readers that “the trial did ‘stand up’ and should go far” to reveal the truth that “Trotsky is now revealed before the workers of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the rest of the world as an ally of fascism and of a preparer of war and therefore, definitely finished as a force of international importance.”  Duranty also supported the death sentence handed down to men like Pyatakov, since, as he wrote, “There is no middle choice…He knowingly organized a counter revolutionary group” that attempted sabotage and murder, which he told readers “is an unpardonable sin.” It evidently did not occur to Duranty that the Soviet regime produced no documentary evidence for the would-be treason, since they had none.

 

What, one must ask, led a reporter like Duranty to engage in such blatant propaganda for the Stalinist regime, and to offer his observations on its behalf to American readers as truth? Duranty went so far as to praise the GPU- the new name given the CHEKA-as a body that did not torture and which was committed to the truth. The reason men confessed was not that they were tortured, but only because Russians had been given “sufficient proof” at the trials of the defendant’s crimes. The forced confessions were simply a Russian “unburdening of the soul” similar to the confession made by individuals in the Catholic Church.

 

In a major Times Magazine article, Duranty sought to explain what lay behind the conflict between Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin. Appearing on February 7th, 1937, it might have been written by Stalin’s own loyal henchmen and appeared in the pages of Pravda or Izvestia. (reminding one of the old Soviet joke: “There’s no truth in Pravda and no news in Izvestia.) After Lenin died, Duranty explained, Stalin listened to the masses, while Trotsky engaged in “intrigue and conspirative cabals.”  He was not surprised, Duranty wrote, since Trotsky had started as a Menshevik rather than a Bolshevik, who always had attacked Lenin’s major ideas, while Stalin supported them.

 

The above explanation, as any reader of scores of biographies of Trotsky knows well, is not only completely false, but simply parrots the official Stalinist explanation of the conflict almost verbatim. He went on to explain:

 

Trotsky’s mainspring was personal ambition, whereas Stalin was ‘Lenin’s disciple and a prolonger of Lenin’s work, as he told me himself on Christmas Day of 1933. In other words, Stalin from the outset was true to the Bolshveiks’ ideology, whereas Trotsky from the outset to his present lamentable position was a Trotskyist first, last and always.

 

Any of the myriad examples one can draw from Duranty’s reporting fully justifies the title his biographer S.J. Taylor gave Duranty for the book she wrote, Stalin’s Apologist: Walter Duranty:The New York Times’s Man in Moscow. As hard as this is to digest, we learn from Taylor of Duranty’s membership in a sadistic cult led by one Aleister Crowley, who called himself “the Beast,” or “Beast 666,” the anti-Christ predicted in the Book of Revelation. Claiming to be a dark magician, he arrived in Paris to practice black arts and magic-sexual rituals, which soon captivated the young Duranty, living in Paris in the days before First World War. Here, with Crowley, Duranty partook of opium while engaging in sexual acts with as many women as he could muster to his side.

 

His foray into journalism began with the First World War, during which he covered the Belgian front. At the war’s end, he reported on the Paris Peace Conference. Sent to the Balkans, Duranty was appointed Moscow correspondent of the Times in 1921. In Moscow, Duranty would quickly learn that the way to prosper and get notoriety was to ingratiate himself with Moscow’s rulers. He traveled in an American Buick imported from the US that was driven by a Soviet chauffer. In addition, the delighted Kremlin rulers saw to it that at a time of horrendous deprivation, he was given his own rather luxurious apartment, where he lived with his mistress and their child.  By Western standards, it was not much, but as Taylor writes, “in Moscow in those days it was unwonted luxury.” When regular Russians had to share apartments with multiple families, Duranty had his own that included a separate bedroom, dining room, and private office, as well as his personal telephone.

 

When he returned to the United States in 1933- after the false famine reports had appeared and he had won his Pulitzer, FDR welcomed him to the White House, in a move meant to provide backing for the President’s desire to have the US recognize the Soviet Union and develop formal diplomatic relations with the USSR. Duranty was the star at the official dinner for the amiable first Soviet Ambassador to the US, Maxim Litvinov. “At last,” Taylor puts it, “he was reaping his reward.” 1500 major industrial and political leaders dined at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City in support of recognition of the Soviets. But it was only the introduction of Duranty to the assembled prestigious audience that got the body to its feet, as they rose from their chairs and cheered.

 

Returning to Moscow, Duranty was summoned to the Kremlin by none other than Stalin himself, who gave him an exclusive interview on Christmas day of 1933. Stalin told him:

 

You have done a good job in your reporting the U.S.S.R., though you are not a Marxist, because you try to tell the truth about our country and to understand it and explain it to your readers. I might say you bet on our horse to win when others thought it had no chance and I am sure you have not lost by it.

 

Duranty may have won the war as best foreign correspondent, but the praise heaped upon him by the Soviet tyrant in our own day is the single most damning indictment of his reporting. Stalin’s unasked tribute to Duranty- if indeed Stalin actually said those words or Duranty made them up himself-paint The Times’ man in Moscow to have been nothing but a propagandist- doing the Kremlin’s job in America better than any of its own paid agents could have.

 

Ronald Radosh is an American writer, professor, and historian. He is known for his work on the Cold War espionage case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.


 

    

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