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REGARDING MEDIA

The Blair affair fuels a 70-year-old scandal

June 14, 2003|TIM RUTTEN

Among all the unforeseeable permutations of the Jayson Blair affair, none is more unexpected -- or more problematic -- than its role in reviving the 13-year-old campaign to strip the New York Times' Walter Duranty of the Pulitzer Prize he won in 1932.

American journalism has thrown up more than its share of vile characters; Duranty certainly was among the worst. As the Times' Moscow correspondent in the 1920s and '30s, he was an active agent of Soviet propaganda and disinformation -- probably paid, certainly blackmailed, altogether willing. For years, Duranty lied, distorted and suppressed information to please Josef Stalin. One of his reportorial reputation's cornerstones, in fact, was the exclusive interview the Soviet dictator granted him in 1929.

Three years later, Duranty was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for correspondence "for his series of dispatches on Russia, especially the working out of the Five Year Plan." In its citation, the Pulitzer Board praised Duranty's work for its "scholarship, profundity, impartiality, sound judgment and exceptional clarity...."

Duranty's acceptance statement described his "respect [for] the Soviet leaders, especially Stalin," whom he called "a really great statesman."

In 1933, Stalin's savage campaign to collectivize agriculture in the Ukraine created a man-made famine in which somewhere between 6 million and 11 million people died. Duranty's reports did not simply ignore the famine. They denied its existence.

Duranty's deceit was amply documented 13 years ago, when historian S.J. Taylor published "Stalin's Apologist," her devastating account of his career. That book was fully and favorably reviewed in the New York Times, and a Times editorial denounced Duranty's work "as some of the worst reporting to appear in this newspaper."

To this day, the Times' official listing of its Pulitzer Prizes carries this notation next to Duranty's name: "Other writers in the Times and elsewhere have discredited this coverage."

When Taylor's book was published in 1990, according to a statement released this week by Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, "the board gave extensive consideration to requests for revocation of the prize to Mr. Duranty -- which would have been unprecedented -- and decided unanimously against withdrawing a prize awarded in a different era and under different circumstances."

This year, however, when the board of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America (UCCA) met to discuss commemoration of the famine's 70th anniversary, it decided "a campaign to revoke Walter Duranty's 1932 Pulitzer Prize" would be an "integral component" of that effort. Their initiative quickly was joined by Canadian and British Ukrainian emigre associations, which set up Internet Web sites through which visitors could e-mail the Pulitzer Board and the New York Times.

"We been working on this for many years," said Tamara Gallo, the committee's executive director. "We decided to renew the campaign as part of our commemoration of the famine not only because it's important for the world to know what happened in 1932-33, but also to expose Duranty as a disgrace to journalism.... We are in contact with the Pulitzer Board, and this week we've asked for a meeting with [Times Publisher] Arthur Sulzberger Jr. With everything that's happened at the New York Times recently, they need to set the record straight. Jayson Blair wasn't the first Times journalist to lie."

But he was, according to Gallo, "the best thing that's happened to our campaign."

Since the Blair scandal broke upon the Times, its ideological critics in the U.S. press have been weighing in, one after another, on the Duranty question. The National Review's influential online edition has published a pair of cutting commentaries. Thursday, the Weekly Standard joined the fray with a piece by the Hoover Institution's Arnold Beichman. He argues that when the Pulitzer Board finishes with the Duranty case, it ought to "look back at the [New York Times'] Herbert L. Matthews coverage of Cuba and the man he so admired, Fidel Castro."

The 1930s were, as W.H. Auden described them, "a low, dishonest decade," filled with apologists for tyrannies left and right, among whom Duranty was a bottom-feeder. But the Times has forthrightly confronted its institutional complicity, most recently in the 150th anniversary issue it published two years ago. In that same issue, former Times Executive Editor Max Frankel commented at length and with equal candor on what he called "the century's bitterest journalistic failure" -- the Times' refusal to print what it knew about the Holocaust that consumed 6 million European Jews a decade after the Ukrainian famine.

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