The announcement of the 2011 Pulitzer Prizes was mostly ignored by the general public last week, but the few remaining large newspapers take them very seriously. So seriously in fact that Arthur S. Brisbane, the Public Editor of the New York Times, saw fit to tweak his colleagues by pointing out that the Los Angeles Times won as many Pulitzers this year (2) as the Grey Lady. While most of us may dismiss this artificial competition as meaningless, Brisbane sees the result as something of a rejoinder to a New York Times article in January that, as he put it, described the L.A. paper as being “in steep decline.” As far as he is concerned, the employees of the New York paper should spend less time “needling” other news organizations and more applying the “laser-like focus to itself.”
Brisbane is, of course, right. But if Brisbane wanted to shine some light on the Times’s Pulitzer hypocrisy, he could have done no better than to look at the full page announcement that ran on page 15 of the paper’s first section on Sunday. In it the newspaper bragged not only about this year’s awards but its history of winning the big prize. On that page the Times listed all 106 Pulitzers that it has won since 1918. It’s an impressive list but, shockingly, the paper saw fit to include the one it got in 1932 which was awarded to “Walter Duranty for coverage of the news in Russia.”
Yes, that’s what citation said. But as anyone with even a passing knowledge of history knows, what Duranty reported that year wasn’t the news. Instead, what he was doing was serving as an unpaid propagandist for Communist dictator Josef Stalin as he set about reporting from Russia the business of mass murder. Writing in response to the reports of mass starvation in the Ukraine—the terror famine in which Stalin orchestrated the deaths of up to 3 million Ukrainians—Duranty wrote the following on November 15, 1931: “There is no famine or actual starvation nor is there likely to be.” Two years later on August 23, 1933, he wrote: “Any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda.”
There is no longer any debate, if there ever really was one, about the fraudulent nature of Duranty’s reporting. He was a knowing accomplice to one of the greatest crimes in history. Yet in 2003, the Pulitzer committee refused to rescind Duranty’s prize saying, “[T]he board concluded that there was not clear and convincing evidence of deliberate deception, the relevant standard in this case.” That is, of course, nonsense since Duranty’s apologetics for Stalin were obvious lies and based on a deliberate decision to ignore the mounds of corpses accumulating in the region in order to bolster Stalin.
The Pulitzer Committee’s disgraceful decision tarnishes the award, but what explains the Times’s own decision to continue listing Duranty on its honor roll? The Duranty scandal may belong to history now, but those searching for the roots of the Times’s contemporary biases need to understand that the ideological vise which grips the paper has been squeezing it for a long time.