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Was Walter Duranty ’credulous’?

by Roger Kimball

Posted: Nov 23, 2003 09:07 AM

Walter Duranty, star reporter for The New York Times, Pulitzer Prize winner, stooge of Joseph Stalin: was he too credulous, poor chap? That’s what David P. Kirkpatrick, writing in the Times, said yesterday. Reporting on the Pultizer Prize Board’s decision not to rescind Duranty’s award, Kirkpatrick described Duranty as "credulous" but not culpable. Really?

In the early 1930s, when he was head of the Times’s Moscow Bureau, Duranty was awarded a Pulitzer for a series of 13 articles on the Soviet Union. In 1932, the great famine began. The horror and brutality of that episode can hardly be exaggerated. The famine was not simply a natural disaster: it was planned and prosecuted by Stalin and his goons. Millions died in lingering agony. The whole story is ably told in Robert Conquest’s classic The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine.

With peasants dropping like flies everywhere around him, Duranty cheerfully cabled back to New York that although there were some occasional food shortages, there was "no actual starvation." That’s good news, Walter! Just what we wanted to hear. Have a Pulitzer. We knew we could count on you to tell the people back home about the wonderful strides Joe Stalin is making--no need to exaggerate the dark side of things. Progress is hard work: idealists need all the help they can get!

There was some hope that Duranty’s mendacity might finally have caught up with him. Recent protests in the Ukraine reached the Pulitzer Board. They convened. They deliberated. They decided. In an official statement, the Pultizer Board said that although Duranty’s work fell short of "today’s standards for foreign reporting," there was "no clear and convincing evidence of deliberate deception."

It took me a while to stop laughing, too. Two whoppers in a single statement! One: as if "today’s standards" of Pultizer-Prize winning reporting were something to write home about and, two: as if it were not patently clear that Duranty was a mendacious philo-Soviet hack who deliberately twisted the truth to suit the demands of the Kremlin.

This is not esoteric knowledge. The Pulitzer Board needn’t have deliberated long to discover this fact. Malcolm Muggeridge knew Duranty in Moscow and described him as "The greatest liar of any journalist I have met in fifty years of journalism." In his memoir Chronicles of Wasted Time, Muggeridge noted that Duranty’s "subservience to the Party Line was so complete that it was even rumored that he was being blackmailed by the Soviet authorities." He wasn’t, as it happens, but blackmail was hardly necessary. If we make allowances for a change of nationality, Humbert Wolfe’s little poem about covers the case:

You cannot hope
   to bribe or twist,
thank God! the
   British journalist.

But, seeing what
   the man will do
unbribed, there’s
   no occasion to.

Walter Duanty was not credulous, he was mendacious. There is a difference, and it beggers credulity--or does it?-- to suppose that a reporter for The New York Times is unaware of the difference.

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