THE FAMINE AND THE TIMES
This month Ukrainians around the world are observing the solemn anniversary of the Great Famine-Genocide of 1932-1933. We needn't remind our readers, we are sure, that the Famine was a deliberate campaign that killed up to 10 million people or that it was indeed genocide.
But perhaps we do need to remind our readers that one of the world's leading newspapers, The New York Times, has yet to acknowledge its mistake in how it covered - or more precisely covered up - the famine.
At the time famine was raging in the Ukrainian countryside, The Times' Moscow correspondent, Walter Duranty, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his "dispassionate interpretive reporting" from the USSR, filed news reports that denied the famine's existence, while privately telling British intelligence that he believed over 10 million people had died.
There have been numerous attempts to get The Times to set the record straight.
In 1986 a Times shareholder and radio talk show host, Les Kinsolving, asked Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger if the newspaper would return the Pulitzer Prize awarded in the 1930s to Duranty, in the light of his documented cover-up. Mr. Sulzberger replied that, "what we report has to stand, for better or worse, as our best contemporary effort." While noting that "perhaps he [Duranty] was too trusting of Soviet sources," the publisher said, "That contemporary Pulitzer jurors thought him worthy of a prize for the things he did write from Moscow is a judgment I am neither equipped nor entitled to second-guess at this date. In any event, it is not a prize The Times can take back."
In 1987 it was learned that, "in agreement with The New York Times and the Soviet authorities," the dispatches of Duranty always "reflect(ed) the official opinion of the Soviet regime and not his own." That information, uncovered in a declassified State Department document - a memorandum written by a U.S. Embassy staffer in Berlin based on a conversation with Duranty, was reported by Dr. James Mace at a conference on "Recognition and Denial of Genocide and Mass Killing in the 20th Century" held by the Institute for the Study of Genocide. After being sent a photocopy of the memorandum plus Dr. Mace's paper, Times Executive Editor Max Frankel relayed a response to this newspaper: Dr. Mace's revelation "doesn't seem to qualify as news. It's really history, and belongs in history books."
The Times revisited the issue of the famine in June 1990 via an item in "The Editorial Notebook" titled "Trenchcoats, Then and Now: The Correspondent Who Liked Stalin." Duranty was "fascinated, almost mesmerized by the harsh system he described," wrote Karl E. Meyer. "The result was some of the worst reporting to appear in this newspaper." The item also noted that the Times correspondent's "lapses" were detailed in the newly released book "Stalin's Apologist" by S.J. Taylor, who documented "his indifference to the catastrophic famine ... when millions perished in Ukraine on the heels of forced collectivization."
"The Editorial Notebook" item may have been a step in the right direction, but the Times has yet to tell the whole truth. It had an opportunity to set the record straight in the recently released supplement dedicated to its 150th anniversary. Executive Editor Howell Raines explained in a note to readers that though the paper's slogan is "All the News That's Fit to Print," it is "patently flawed. ... important news slips by because our coverage reflects blind spots that we recognize only in retrospect ... (see Max Frankel's article on page 10 about our blinkered coverage of the Holocaust). ...we have not covered every major event with perfect prescience." Mr. Raines continued: "We know we make mistakes, and we hate them, but we do not fear them to the point of timidity, as long as they are made in the course of intellectually honest work and are promptly corrected."
What then, we ask, is preventing The New York Times from acknowledging its most grievous mistake from the 1930s and from being intellectually honest enough to return the Pulitzer that Walter Duranty should never have received?