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Stalin’s Pulitzer winner

In the winter of 897, the recently elected Pope Stephen VI ordered the exhumation of his predecessor Formosus, so that the dead pontiff could be tried on a variety of charges, including perjury. The proceeding against the still fully enrobed corpse is recalled in history as “the cadaver synod” and -- unsurprisingly -- ended in the silent defendant’s conviction on all counts.

The corrupt Stephen’s motives for the whole gruesome business -- bizarre even by the standards of that particular low point in papal history -- were too venal and convoluted to be rehearsed here.

Nothing of the sort can or should be said about those now pressing the Pulitzer Prize Board to strip the New York Times’ Walter Duranty of the prize he won for correspondence in 1932. But the tidying of history is always a fraught affair, and while there are good reasons for the board to once again revisit Duranty’s case, there also are reasons to leave things as they are.

American journalism has thrown up more than its share of truly vile characters over the years. Duranty surely was among the worst. As the Times’ Moscow correspondent in the 1920s and ‘30s, he was an active and enthusiastic agent of Soviet propaganda and disinformation -- probably paid, certainly blackmailed, altogether willing. His character was sordid, his personal life debauched. For years, Duranty used his influential post to lie, distort and suppress information in ways that pleased Joseph Stalin. In 1929, the Soviet dictator rewarded his useful toady with an exclusive interview that became one of the cornerstones of Duranty’s reportorial reputation.

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In 1932, the Pulitzer board awarded Duranty its correspondence prize “for his series of dispatches on Russia, especially the working out of the Five Year Plan.” The citation accompanying the prize said Duranty’s work was distinguished by its “scholarship, profundity, impartiality, sound judgment and exceptional clarity.... “

Duranty’s acceptance statement included a profession of “respect [for] the Soviet leaders, especially Stalin,” whom he called “a really great statesmen.” At the time, Duranty expressed those sentiments, the dictator already had begun his savage campaign to collectivize farming in Ukraine. Within a year, the campaign had created a man-made famine in which somewhere between 6 million and 11 million Ukrainians died. In some of his dispatches from that period, Duranty simply ignored the famine. In others, he denied its existence.

Neither the Times nor the Pulitzer board have avoided coming to grips with the scandal of Duranty’s career. In 1986, when historian Robert Conquest published his magisterial work on the Ukrainian tragedy -- “The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine” -- the Times assigned another veteran Moscow correspondent, Craig R. Whitney, to review it. He noted that Duranty “denied the existence of the famine in his dispatches until it was almost over.... “

Thirteen years ago, when historian S.J. Taylor published her damning account of Duranty’s career, “Stalin’s Apologist,” the book was favorably reviewed in the Times. Karl E. Meyer, a member of the paper’s editorial board, wrote a signed piece in which he said that Duranty’s dispatches contained “some of the worst reporting to appear in this newspaper.” Ever since, the Times’ official list of its Pulitzer Prizes has carried this notation next to Duranty’s name: “Other writers in the Times and elsewhere have discredited this coverage.”

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At about the time Taylor’s biography was published, according to 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.”

There matters remained until this year, when the board of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America met to discuss commemoration of the famine’s 70th anniversary and decided “a campaign to revoke Walter Duranty’s 1932 Pulitzer Prize” should be “an integral component” of the memorial. The initiative was joined by Ukrainian emigre groups in Canada and Great Britain.

In response, the Pulitzer board established a special subcommittee to reconsider Duranty’s prize and last July that group asked the Times for comment. The paper hired Columbia University professor Mark von Hagen, a specialist in early 20th century Russian history, to reexamine and report on the journalism for which Duranty received his prize. In his report, he described the dispatches for which Duranty was honored as a “dull and largely uncritical recitation of Soviet sources.”

On July 29, according to a story this week by Times reporter Jacques Steinberg, the paper’s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., forwarded the Von Hagen report to the Pulitzer board. In his cover letter, Sulzberger wrote that “over the past two decades, the Times has often acknowledged that Duranty’s slovenly work should have been recognized for what it was by his editors and by his Pulitzer judges seven decades ago.”

While the publisher said his paper would respect the board’s decision in the matter, revocation of the prize might itself suggest the “Stalinist practice to airbrush purged figures out of official records and histories.” Sulzberger also expressed apprehension that, by acting, “the board would be setting a precedent for revisiting its judgments over many decades.”

In an interview, Bill Keller, the Times’ executive editor and himself a former Moscow correspondent, told Steinberg, “As someone who spent time in the Soviet Union while it still existed, the notion of airbrushing history kind of gives me the creeps.” The historian Von Hagen, on the other hand, told the New York Sun in an interview that he thinks Duranty’s prize should be rescinded.

The reasons for revoking Walter Duranty’s Pulitzer Prize are obvious. The arguments for letting matters remain as they stand are less so, but worth considering:

First, Duranty was honored for his reporting in 1931 on the Soviets’ Five Year Plan. It was bad, dishonest work. But the demand that he be stripped of the award is not a response to those reports, but to the justifiable outrage people now feel over what he did and -- more important -- did not write about the Ukrainian famine two years later. Acting on that basis would make every existing and future prize hostage to a later board’s opinions of a recipient’s subsequent professional and personal conduct. That’s a messy prospect.

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Second, Duranty’s dishonest journalism wasn’t just an intellectual scandal. He did terrible harm and wielded a malevolent influence whose impact even now cannot be fully calculated. But were it not for his Pulitzer Prize, his name would be all but forgotten. Keeping alive the memory of his misconduct through the annual repetition of his disgrace is worthwhile in an era in which impartial reporting is again subject to subversion by those eager to make journalism the servant of ideology.

Third, in recent years the Pulitzer has taken on a kind of totemic quality as an infallible imprimatur of journalistic quality. The Duranty case reminds us that the prize is conferred not from Olympus but by fallible human judges, who must -- like the rest of us -- be constantly on guard against political expediency, intellectual sloth and moral blindness.

There is no decent brief to be held for Walter Duranty, but obliterating the memory of his prize might also sweep away other memories we need to retain.


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