'The New York Times' can't shake the cloud over a 90-year-old Pulitzer Prize
The New York Times is looking to add to its list of 132 Pulitzer Prizes — by far the most of any news organization — when the 2022 recipients for journalism are announced on Monday.
Yet the war in Ukraine has renewed questions of whether the Times should return a Pulitzer awarded 90 years ago for work by Walter Duranty, its charismatic chief correspondent in the Soviet Union.
"He is the personification of evil in journalism," says Oksana Piaseckyj, a Ukrainian-American activist who came to the U.S. as a child refugee in 1950. She is among the advocates for the return of the award. "We think he was like the originator of fake news."
A new voice now adds himself to the cause: former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller — himself a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1989 for his own reporting for the Times on the Soviet Union.
In the 1930s, as now, an autocrat's decrees led to mass deaths of Ukrainian civilians and relied on misinformation to try to cover it up. Reporters, including Duranty, were censored and threatened. (A U.S. diplomat once wrote that Duranty told him his reports had to reflect "the official opinion of the Soviet regime.") Yet in a time before social media and the internet, foreign journalists were among the only ones who could get news out to the rest of the world.
Duranty was The New York Times' man in Moscow, as the line went, with a cushy apartment in which to entertain expatriates and a reputation as a leading authority on the Soviet Union. Duranty had staked his name on the idea that Josef Stalin was the strong leader the communist country needed. He is often credited with coining the term "Stalinism."
He wrote glowing reports of an autocrat's harsh plans for Ukraine
In return, Duranty won rare interviews with Stalin and wrote glowingly about Stalin and his plans. The Pulitzer board cited his "dispassionate interpretive reporting" in awarding him a prize in 1932 for a series of reports the previous year. The first was a front-page article that started with the line: "Russia today cannot be judged by Western standards or interpreted in Western terms."
It is worth being clear on what Stalin's plans, called "collectivization," led to: the deaths of millions of Ukrainians and more than a million Russians, according to credible estimates.
"Activists from the Communist Party locally and nationally went house to house in Ukrainian towns and villages, confiscating food," says the journalist and scholar Anne Applebaum, who has written extensively on the period. "They took wheat, they took grain, they took vegetables, they took livestock. They took everything that people had."
Applebaum's book Red Famine chronicles the ensuing catastrophe based on an extensive review of archives by Ukrainian historians.
"People ate mice, they ate rats, they ate leaves, they ate grass," Applebaum says. "There were even some incidents of cannibalism."
She says Stalin used collectivization to crush any nationalist stirrings in Ukraine and to pay for his efforts to industrialize the Soviet Union. Communist Party officials had possible dissidents arrested, exiled and killed, especially professionals.
"It's thought that between 3 and 4 million people died" in Ukraine, she says.
By toeing the line, Duranty aided his career
Despite lingering suspicions over Duranty's motivations, Applebaum says she found no evidence the reporter was bribed or blackmailed by Russian agents. She also says he did not appear to be swayed by communism, though he was reportedly threatened against reflecting unwelcome truths.
Instead, Appelbaum says, Duranty simply toed the line because it was good for his career — excusing and rejecting the deadliness of Stalin's rule well past any moment of possible denial.
In 1933, the Welsh writer Gareth Jones reported and spoke publicly about the famine after interviewing ordinary Ukrainians while he wandered by foot for 40 miles. Jones, a former aide to former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, had previously scored an interview with Adolf Hitler.
In March 1933, Duranty wrote in a Times story on page 13 that Jones possessed a "keen and active mind," but that the Welsh writer's interviews with people near Kharkiv represented "a rather inadequate cross-section of a big country." Duranty added he had sought to convince Jones otherwise but that "nothing could shake his conviction of impending doom." (Jones was killed under murky circumstances in Mongolia in 1935. His clash with Duranty inspired the 2019 movie Mr. Jones.)
"Duranty set out to tear him down," Applebaum says. "And, of course, at the time, he succeeded because he was the famous Walter Duranty."
Duranty remained unwavering in his defense of Stalin and his policies, even as the famine unfolded. He used approved euphemisms like "malnutrition" instead of "famine." And in that March 1933 story, Duranty appeared to justify Stalin's use of force.
"To put it brutally," Duranty wrote, "you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs."
In August 1933, Duranty started another front-page story with these words: "The excellent harvest about to be gathered shows that any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda."
He acknowledged the shortages affecting Ukraine and other agricultural regions but added, "there will be more than sufficient [food] to cover the nation's food supply for the coming year and to justify the Kremlin's policy of collectivization."
Privately, a British diplomat recorded in September 1933 that Duranty had acknowledged to him that "as many as 10 million people may have died directly or indirectly from lack of food in the past year." Such an assessment never appeared in public.
Decades later, scholars started to drill down on Duranty's role
Duranty died in 1957. As the Soviet Union cracked apart decades later, historians pried loose the full nature of the Ukrainian famine from censored archives. Scholars drilled down too on Duranty's role in deflecting attention from the humanitarian crisis and blame from Stalin.
"He was not only the greatest liar among the journalists in Moscow, but he was the greatest liar of any journalist that I ever met in 50 years of journalism," said the late Malcolm Muggeridge in 1982 for a documentary produced by two Ukrainian-Canadian groups.
Muggeridge had reported about the famine in 1933 from Ukraine for the Manchester Guardian, his byline withheld to protect his identity from Soviet authorities. "Anybody who you were talking to knew that there was a terrible famine going on," Muggeridge told his interviewer. "Indeed in Moscow itself, there was a decided food shortage."
The New York Times began to assess Duranty's work in increasingly caustic terms, starting in 1986 and 1990.
In 2003, public pressure led the Times and the Pulitzer Prize Board to conduct parallel reviews of Duranty's work and the prize. The board found no "clear and convincing evidence of deliberate deception." It decided against withdrawing his award. (The Pulitzer Prize administrator at the time, Sig Gissler, declined to comment for this story.)
Then-Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said he had concluded stripping Duranty's work of the award would be like airbrushing history — in essence, a "Stalinist" approach. (A historian hired by the Times as a consultant in evaluating Duranty's work would publicly denounce that conclusion shortly after.) The newspaper publicly posted an essay representing its institutional position, calling his work discredited and explaining why.
Bill Keller had just become The Times' executive editor that summer. He tells NPR he looks back with some regret that he did not push harder for the award to be returned. He now says the Pulitzer board should rescind it.
"I mean, I can articulate a case for not revoking the prize and saying this is a teachable moment. Hold the prize out there, but surround it with the shame it deserves," Keller says, describing what the paper chose to do.
Yet he continues, "But I thought the Pulitzer board's reasoning in not doing away with the prize was pretty lame. A Pulitzer Prize is not just an accolade for an isolated piece of work. It at least implies an accolade for the reporter's performance, and Duranty's performance was shameful."
In 2003, the Times faced multiple challenges to its credibility
In retrospect, Keller says the climate in which the newspaper was operating in fall 2003 must have affected the decision it reached.
A pair of high-profile scandals had upended the Times just months before. Star reporter Judith Miller's scoops about Saddam Hussein's caches of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq proved groundless. And a rising star, Jayson Blair, turned out to have fabricated and plagiarized in dozens of articles. Keller's predecessor, Howell Raines, was forced out as executive editor; Keller was named to a job for which he had been passed over a few years earlier.
"The Times' credibility had been called into question in two really important cases," Keller says. "I can imagine it made it harder to acknowledge even something that was  years old. ...It was another blow to the Times' credibility."
The Times still lists Duranty among its Pulitzer winners. Even so, as Keller says, the newspaper has distanced itself from what Duranty wrote in its pages.
Sulzberger, now retired, declined to comment through a Times spokeswoman. The spokeswoman, Danielle Rhoades Ha, wrote in a statement that "by publishing Duranty's discredited coverage," the paper fell short of its journalistic mission. But, she added, the paper "has comprehensively detailed its lapses to ensure they are not repeated."
The Times maintains that the decision on Duranty's honor rests with the Pulitzer board, which is overseen by Columbia University.
But it took a more active approach in the recent past regarding a separate controversy.
In late 2020, it asked the Pulitzer board to take back finalist honors given to Caliphate, a podcast series that proved to be largely based on a hoax. The board did. The paper also returned a Peabody Award for the same series.
The NYT is in "a very different time and place" now, the newsroom's new leader says
The Times' next top news executive says Duranty doesn't come close to meeting the Times' standards.
"It was a very different time and place," says Joseph Kahn, who is about to rise from managing editor to executive editor at the paper. "The notion that you have a single correspondent on his or her own defining a take on a major story doesn't feel like the world we live in today."
Kahn, a former foreign correspondent and top international editor for the paper, says the Times has 40 journalists in Ukraine right now. He says what the Times is doing now is in some ways making up for the paper's past shortcomings. The paper has shined a light on potential Russian war crimes and Russian propaganda efforts.
The new administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, Marjorie Miller, says the board's new chairpersons have not changed the organization's stance on Duranty.
She says many award-winning reports and many award-winning reporters would be seen differently in the years after they were recognized.
"The board has never revoked a prize," Miller says. "The Times could certainly withdraw its support [for Duranty's work]."
In 1981, the Pulitzer board withdrew a prize from a Washington Post reporter after she confessed to her editors to having fabricated the subject of her award-winning story, a purported 8-year-old addicted to heroin.
Anne Applebaum joined the Pulitzer board this spring. She remains withering on Duranty. But she says she's reserving judgment, at least for now, on the question of whether his award should be taken back. It can be fraught, she says, to start reassessing past judgments through the lens of the present.
Disclosure: This story was reported by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik and edited by Media & Tech Editor Emily Kopp, Chief Business Editor Pallavi Gogoi and Senior Business Editor Uri Berliner. As NPR Senior Vice President for News and Editorial Director Nancy Barnes serves on the Pulitzer Prize board, neither Barnes nor any other senior news executive at NPR reviewed this story before it was posted publicly.
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