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I have long known about the Holodomor, which has Ukrainian roots that can be translated into the “hunger plague.” During a period of collectivization, Joseph Stalin stole grain from men, women, and children in a part of his empire that mattered very little to him. There is good evidence that Stalin wished, in fact, to eliminate those men, women, and children for the crime of wishing to eat the fruit of their labor as he closed his iron fist around all of his constituent republics.
Peasant revolts proved futile, and “stealing” food from the state could get one the death penalty or hard labor, which was the death penalty, by 1932. If one did not steal food, however, the penalty was also death. In a year of incredible cruelty and communism’s endless catch-22s, millions succumbed to starvation in small villages from which all food had been confiscated, from which no dying souls were allowed to leave, from which corpses were unceremoniously removed in carts as during Europe’s Black Plague. The Soviets then put posters in the streets proclaiming cannibalism was immoral, as the desperate increasingly turned to cannibalism for there was no other source of sustenance due to the Soviets’ immoral removal of all other food.
This brings me to the Grey Lady and her habit of employing liars to fill her pages.
Walter Duranty was a British journalist who might have inspired much sympathy as a young boy because his parents were killed in a train crash when he was just ten. The young orphan then had to deal with the challenges of being a boarder in an elite, all-boys’ school in London, which was no small feat if one gives credence to accounts from a fellow Harrovian, albeit from an earlier era, Winston Churchill. Duranty then came into his own at the University of Cambridge where he put his personal travails aside and gained a reputation for being a charming addition to many social circles, even while he dabbled in the occult.
He first became employed by the New York Times during WWI. His copy had a personal touch, as he recounted the inhumanity of the carnage that marked the era. However, it seems the same cynicism that colored the prose of the Lost Generation writers quickly seeped into Duranty’s spirit; perhaps losing a leg in another train crash in France in 1924 sparked within him some strange dedication to nihilistic hedonism; perhaps Duranty had never had the time or ability to truly develop a moral compass. Whatever the case, he moved to a space in which his profession supported his own self-indulgences, which included myriad mistresses in Moscow while his wife lived away in St. Tropez.
On his philosophy as a journalist, in his 1935 book I Write as I Please, Duranty said, “Right and wrong are evasive terms at best and I have never felt that it was my problem – or that of any other reporter – to sit in moral judgment. What I want to know is whether a policy or a political line or a regime will work or not, and I refuse to let myself be side-tracked by moral issues or by abstract questions as to whether the said policy or line or regime would be suited to a different country and different circumstances.”
Personally, I do not think journalists should sit in moral judgment of their subjects either, as I am a history teacher who understands that doing so comes with many hazards. Journalists go astray when erecting perches on which they sit in judgment of others as if they could somehow transform themselves into modern versions of Solomon. However, there is a difference between trying to be objective and throwing all morals out the window to willfully obscure the truth, as Duranty did when covering the Holodomor and Joseph Stalin.
In 1932, Duranty was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his reports on the Soviet Union. In his 1982 case study of Duranty and another journalist, Angels in Stalin’s Paradise, James William Crowl observed, “What is so remarkable about Duranty’s selection for the Pulitzer is that, for a decade, his reports had been slanted and distorted in a way that made a mockery of the award citation. Probably without parallel in the history of these prestigious prizes, the 1932 award went to a man whose reports concealed or disguised the conditions they claimed to reveal, and who may even have been paid by the Soviets for his deceptions.”
In 1933, when a young journalist from Wales named Gareth Jones tried to tell the world what was happening in the Ukraine, Duranty flatly dismissed Jones’s reporting. In a March 30, 1933 article in the New York Times, Duranty wrote, “There is a serious food shortage throughout the country, with occasional cases of well-managed State or collective farms. The big cities and the army are adequately supplied with food. There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation, but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition. In short, conditions are definitely bad in certain sections – the Ukraine, North Caucasus and Lower Volga. The rest of the country is on short rations but nothing worse. These conditions are bad, but there is no famine.”
Eugene Lyons, an associate of Duranty’s and the first western journalist working in Moscow who was granted an interview with Stalin, openly admitted in a 1937 auto-biography that there was a concerted effort to destroy Jones’s credibility at the time. He and Duranty purposefully used “round about phrases” to question the Welshman’s character. Lyons later told another journalist, Bassow Whitman, that the “filthy business” of conspiring over how to hide what many now call a genocide was chased down with vodka.
At the same time that Jones’s work was being questioned, Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office. This was during the Great Depression, and sympathy for communism was on the rise in the United States. This sympathy was stoked by Duranty who pushed the opinion that the US should normalize relations with the USSR, which was accomplished by November. Alexander Woollcott, the famed critic who wrote for The New Yorker, said after a dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria celebrating the new arrangement that “one quite got the impression that America, in a spasm of discernment, was recognizing both Russia and Walter Duranty.” Joseph Stalin then rewarded Duranty for his contributions to this normalization of relations with the Americans with an interview, the second in Duranty’s career, and praised him for telling the “truth” about the Soviet Union.
As chronicled by Sally J. Taylor, Walter Duranty would continue to be “Stalin’s apologist” for years to come. He excused the show trials of the Great Purge as “necessary.” He felt Stalin was a great man who needed to act as he did to modernize the country. Duranty became the “prototype for the dishonest reporter” as he prostituted his work to absolve one of the world’s most brutal dictators from crimes against humanity.
In 1944, Duranty wrote, “In a bare quarter-century the USSR has accomplished ages of growth. The most ignorant and backward of all the white nations has moved into the forefront of social, economic, and political consciousness. Its obsolete agricultural system has been modernized and mechanized; its small and artificial industry has become gigantic and self-supporting; its illiterate masses have been educated and disciplined to appreciate and enjoy the benefits of collective effort.”
By 2003, Bill Keller, who served as the executive editor of the New York Times, said that Duranty’s work had simply been “parroting propaganda.” Thus Duranty had been unworthy of the Pulitzer he won in the early twentieth century when he was one of the most lauded of all the journalists who then worked for the New York Times. Mark von Hagen, a professor at Columbia University, called Duranty’s work a “disgrace” for the newspaper.
Ultimately, the award was not retracted, which I think is most proper. To withdraw the Pulitzer in the 21st century would erase in a way what happened in the 20th. As we have seen from further Pulitzers bestowed on journalists like Nikole Hannah-Jones, the prize itself is worthless if trying to assess quality of reporting, and the New York Times has not gotten any more honest over the decades. After all, one day, the paper might repudiate Hannah-Jones as well, but this will be done as it was with Duranty: only after damage to the world has already been inflicted by the prize-endorsed deception.
Maybe it’s no surprise that the New York Times has a record of liking liars and sustaining lies. That is certainly a part of the Grey Lady’s legacy.
However, if you’d like to learn more about an honorable writer who was not in the employ of the New York Times at all while risking all to tell the truth, you might enjoy renting Mr. Jones currently available on Amazon. The movie gives you a good overview of Gareth Jones’s efforts, though I think his research in the Ukraine was more extensive–per his defense of his conclusions written in response to Walter Duranty’s attacks on his work–than the film can show.
I had never heard of Gareth Jones before watching the film, but I was happy to know that truth is uncovered sometimes by good journalists. Unfortunately, truth is obscured more often by men like Walter Duranty who so often find fame in the same field.Published in