The New York Times and the Pulitzer organization are currently in high dudgeon over a 1932 Pulitzer prize awarded to Times Russia correspondent Walter Duranty. The problem: a report commissioned by the Times and authored by Columbia University’s 20th Century Russia historian Mark Von Hagen, who has determined that Duranty’s articles from 1931 Russia were a "dull and largely uncritical recitation of Soviet sources."
The Times, for its part, now says the late Duranty’s work was "some of the worst reporting to appear" in that paper, and says it won’t contest a possible posthumous revocation of his award (though new executive editor Bill Keller warns that revoking the prize seems a bit like the Stalin regime’s "airbrushing of history"). All this belated condemnation of Duranty’s work raises an interesting question: given that the Times was hardly a Commie publication in 1932, if his writing was so terrible, just what, exactly, were the Times editors thinking when they read Duranty’s reports from Russia and ran them on the paper’s front page, and when they repeatedly renewed his foreign assignment contract?
Duranty’s real sin, it seems, is that he allegedly failed to report on the terrible Ukrainian famine of 1932/33, which led to the deaths of millions and which was in no small part caused, or significantly worsened in its impact by the deliberate policies of Joseph Stalin (and which also, more to the point, has now roused the ire of right-wing Ukrainian exiles here in the U.S., the proximate reason for the attack on Duranty’s work). While no one is saying Duranty’s 1930 articles, which were the reason for his award, should have reported on a famine that didn’t occur until two years hence, his oeuvre in its entirety is now being condemned as the work of a Soviet apologist– as propaganda, that is.
Propaganda, or course, has always been a rather loaded term in modern American usage. It is, for most people, defined as the untruthful and deceptive information broadcast by Communists. It is not something that America or its allies engage in. Oh sure, we know that American leaders sometimes "stretch the truth" or put a "spin" on the facts, but when is the last time you’ve heard lies from the White House (like, for instance, Bush administration claims that things are going well, or as planned, in Iraq), described in the American press as "propaganda"?
Likewise, a reporter who is seen as too credulous in reporting a story based upon government sources in Cuba or Laos or China, or in the former Soviet Union, is guilty of being a dupe of propaganda, or at least a poor journalist, ala Duranty. But a reporter who credulously or even enthusiastically passes along as informed truth the deceptions and lies of the American government (or the Israeli government)? She or he is simply reporting the facts, and being a good journalist.
How else to explain the awarding of a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 to Shirley Christian, then of the Miami Herald, for her execrable reporting on Central America and Chile? Christian, both before 1981 and afterwards, was an assiduous purveyor of the official Nixon/Kissinger/Reagan line on Latin and Central America. In her reports, there was no such thing as a popular rebellion against a fascist and criminal ruling elite propped up by the CIA, nor was there such a thing as gross violation of human rights and death squad murders by those U.S.-backed fascist regimes. Rather there were democratic or would-be democratic governments nobly trying to resist a Communist-led insurgency. This was pure propaganda and dreadful reporting, but hasn’t seemed to bother the Pulitzer judges, or the Times, which hired Christian after her award.
Nor is Christian alone. What about the three (count ’em, three) Pulitzers that have been awarded to the Times’ Thomas Friedman, who has largely adhered to Washington’s pro-Israel policy line since well before his first award in 1983, and who spent late 2002 and early 2003 pimping for the Bush Iraq invasion campaign following his 2002 Pulitzer award. No, the Pulitzer, widely hailed as American journalism’s highest honor, would have a considerably shorter winners list if credulous writing and the shameless or lazy purveying of government propaganda from all sources were grounds for disqualification or revocation of awards, and poor Duranty, who isn’t here to defend himself, would not be the only winner to have his prize put in jeopardy.
Meanwhile, one really has to question the motives of the Pulitzer Committee and the New York Times, which, after all, hardly would have needed a Columbia history professor to tell them if Duranty’s journalism was as terrible as it’s now being described. What seems to really be behind this effort is the pressure from right-wing Ukrainian political groups in the U.S., which have made this a cause. At a time when the Times and other American media organizations are being accused by the Bush administration and many conservatives of being too liberal, this kind of pressure can be embarrassing.
Indeed, it might be more appropriate, if Duranty’s reporting was all that god-awful, for the Pulitzer Board to revoke the appointment of the Pulitzer journalism jury panel that gave him his prize in the first place. Either they were gross incompetents, or they were grossly negligent in their appraisal of his application