New York Times and Pulitzers Trade Blame Over Walter Duranty

There's a certain amount of progress in that no one wants to take credit for Communist apologist Walter Duranty, but instead of actually disavowing him, the New York Times and the Pulitzers keep blaming each other for not disavowing him.

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."

You probably know the rest of the story. 

Stalin's famine killed huge numbers of people. The mass murder was covered up by Duranty and the New York Times. The former won a Pultizer prize while the latter refuses to give it up. 

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."

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."

And so the Times keeps bizarrely insisting that this is a Pulitzer problem.

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.

So the Times can choose to pull the prize. It chooses not to do so in Duranty's case. And the Pulitzers kick the ball back to the Times.

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]."

The bottom line is that neither the New York Times nor the Pultizer board are willing to disavow Duranty because he was doing their work. The Times recently ran its celebratory series about Communism and the USSR. The  Pulitzers have long since made their politics clear. What they want is plausible deniability. Both sides point their fingers at each other while protecting Duranty.

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.

Applebaum, of all people, should know that the issue with Duranty is the past, not the present.

Everyone who chose to know was well aware of who Duranty was and what his agenda was. This was not some modern reassessment. It was complicity that people at the time were well aware of. And the complicity still continues today.

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