Walter Duranty & the New York Times: “All the News That’s Fit to Print”Stephen Paul Foster
“The strong man with the dagger is followed by the weaker man with the sponge. First, the criminal who slays, then the sophist who defends the slayer.” — Lord Acton
“There is no famine, nor is there likely to be.” — Walter Duranty, The New York Times
Walter Duranty, a British-born journalist, served as the Moscow bureau chief for the New York Times from 1922 through 1936. He was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for 13 articles written in 1931 and published in the Times analyzing the Soviet Union under the consolidation of Stalin’s dictatorship. In the Times executive offices, hallway portraits of Pulitzer prizewinners hang, including that of Mr. Duranty, with the inscription that the award recognized “a profound and intimate comprehension of conditions in Russia [consistent with] the best type of foreign correspondence.”
But beside Duranty’s portrait is attached a note, “Other writers in the Times and elsewhere have discredited this coverage.” What then does this yin-of-praise, yang-of-repudiation mean? If “discredited,” then why are his photograph and inscription still in a place of honor? The Pulitzer board has twice declined to withdraw the award.
Duranty seems to hang in the Times hallway in a kind of reputational limbo. His work as a journalist was an abomination, and awarding him the prize added insult to injury. It is difficult to overstate how unfortunate it was that a man of Duranty’s character and personality defects was to be sold as a superior talent and to be placed in a position to report on and influence opinion on momentous historical events that shaped the history of the twentieth century and affected the lives of so many people.
In 1990, 33 years after Duranty’s death, J. S. Taylor published a biography of Duranty entitled Stalin’s Apologist: Walter Duranty, the New York Times’s Man in Moscow. The title could not be more apropos. Duranty’s paychecks came from the Times, but he worked for the Kremlin chief. Covering up knowledge of the famine that Stalin had deliberately created and imposed on Ukraine in the early 1930s was perhaps his greatest accomplishment. Though not in the governing inner-circle, Duranty exhibited some of the same qualities of character as Stalin’s henchmen, namely a lack of any moral principle and a dedication to self-advancement. In his Camrades: a Breve Historia del Comunismo, Robert Service writes that Duranty “was shameless, someone who would say anything that would prolong his comfort and his commercial activity in the USSR.”
Duranty also covered Stalin’s show trials up close in the mid-1930s in Moscow. In The New Republic, after observing the infamous 1937 show trial of Stalin’s competitor for power, Nicholai Bukharin, Duranty expounded on the “credibility” of the forced confessions of the defendants. Throughout the rest of the 1930s and into the 1940s, Duranty followed and reported on the sham legal proceedings for his western readers. His rendering of the trials was essentially a vindication of Stalin’s purges of the old Bolshevik leadership, as well as a rationalization of their obvious irregularities. In 1941 Duranty published The Kremlin and the People, a book in which he put forth his “Fifth Column” thesis, arguing that the Soviet Communist Party had indeed been infiltrated by saboteurs and traitors — Stalin’s own version — and that while there were excesses and abuses of what by Western standards would be due process, the trials on the whole were necessary in order for the Soviet Union to purge itself of traitorous elements before it entered into war. Duranty also downplayed the number of casualties from the Great Purges of 1936-1939.
The famine and its devastating effects that Duranty helped Stalin to conceal from the outside world plunged three to seven million people into starvation, depending on varying accounts. “There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition, especially in the Ukraine, North Caucasus and Lower Volga,” Duranty had written in 1933, at the time when people were starving by the millions. No exact count is possible, as the Soviet census compilers who took the initial counts after the famine were ordered by Stalin to be shot, presumably because their numbers were too accurate and pointed toward the ugly truth of what had happened.
The famine was a horrific piece of mass murder that continues to stagger the imagination in the cold-blooded calculation of its planning, its massive dimensions, and its merciless ferocity. A human catastrophe of this magnitude, one would think, would not be that easy to cover up. But Stalin was also extremely good at that. Malcolm Muggeridge, who traveled to Ukraine in 1933 after developing a suspicion of what was happening to the peasants, became one of the few outside direct eyewitnesses. It was, he said, “one of the most monstrous crimes in history, so terrible that people in the future will scarcely be able to believe that it ever happened.” In recompense for his efforts to tell the outside world what was happening inside Stalin’s new society, Muggeridge was vilified and then blackballed as a journalist. His own wife’s aunt, the Stalin-smitten Fabian Socialist Beatrice Webb, sneeringly dismissed his reports as “a hysterical tirade.” By telling the world what Stalin’s policies and his cadres were actually doing to the people they ruled over, Muggeridge had fallen afoul of Britain’s powerful opinion-shaping Left. He became persona non grata and could no longer get work as a journalist.
The famine was the first of its kind in modern history, a famine made by command and not by drought, crop failure, or war. Communist Party activists descended on the Ukrainian countryside and were ordered to physically remove virtually all of the food from the region. It was British historian Robert Conquest who in the 1990s sought to undo the horrendous distortion of history done by Duranty’s dishonest service to the NYT. With the assistance of historian James Mace, a junior fellow at the Harvard Ukrainian Research, Conquest wrote Harvest of Sorrow, a work dedicated to making the West aware of the effects of Stalin’s terror famine on millions of people.
Duranty not only reported the famine to his Western readers in euphemistic and misleading terms, he took the lead in discrediting the report of Gareth Jones, a fellow Brit who on a three-week walking trip through Ukraine reported the extensive starvation that he had personally witnessed. Duranty apparently worried about falling out of favor with the Soviet censors and being denied access to the high-profile Metro-Vickers trial if the Jones reports were not repudiated. Gareth Jones, the amateur truth-teller, was no match for the “professional” Walter Duranty, who was able to discredit him, the result of which was that Jones’ direct observations of one of the worst atrocities of the modern world were ignored and lost. “‘Throwing down Jones’” signaled one of the sorriest periods of reportage in the history of the free press, one in which Walter Duranty led the way — with the others in the pack all not that far behind.”
Duranty deceived his Western readers for years. He devoted his skills to the crafting of a false image of the Soviet Union, and above all of Stalin, someone whose obvious crudeness and brutality could be excused as the darker side of a great and determined man whose better instincts were focused on advancing the well-being of the toiling working class whose interests he claimed to represent. In Moscow, in the very early days of the Bolshevik regime, Duranty continued his “cunning Machiavellian reporting” that his reporter colleague, George Seldes of the Chicago Tribute, attributed to him.
Like Stalin, Duranty was a highly talented liar with lying deeply embedded in his character. His personal history reveals a man dissolute and largely devoid of personal morals. His long public career as a supposedly truth-telling reporter was built upon the selling of lies on a very grand scale to many people. Later in his life, Muggeridge referred to Duranty as “the greatest liar I have ever met in fifty years of journalism,” and Joseph Alsop called him a “fashionable prostitute” who served the Communists.
Duranty’s biography is a protype for New York Times journalists. His modus operandi appears to now be the norm for the journalists the newspaper employs, a newspaper whose masthead still bears founder Adolph S. Ochs’s slogan, “All the news that’s fit to print” — now a joke.
Walter Duranty practiced a profession which at its core is supposed to be about telling the truth to others about important events they are not in a position to directly observe or judge. The normative assumption is that the journalist operates independently of wielders of political power and exercises a kind of moral oversight in the form of an observer and reporter of events who has no vested interest in misrepresenting them. One may not recoil much from hearing an accusation of a lying from a politician, much less a dictator, since it is both fairly commonplace and predictable. But a lying journalist is different matter. The lies of a journalist are a betrayal of trust, a complete abdication of professional responsibility which in the modern world is viewed as a constraint on the abuse of power and privilege. The lying journalist is a betrayer of the worst kind.
Strong criminal men of action in an age of mass communication need the weaker men of words, the sponges (as Lord Acton states) to wipe away and hide from view the blood, the depredations, and the crimes. Stalin had many of these weaker men in tow, the intellectual sycophants who defended and praised him. But Duranty is in many ways a special case. For one thing, he was a Westerner outside of Stalin’s orbit of direct power or control. This alone, however, did not make him special or unique. There were a lot of sophisticated admirers and adulators from the West like Sidney and Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw, and H. G. Wells who came away from visits with Stalin entranced and full of praise.
But Duranty did something far worse. He represented one of the most prestigious, influential, and authoritative newspapers in the Western world, and he was charged with reporting to his readers the truth about a newly-developing social order, one touted by its leaders to be far superior to anything past or present. Duranty, however, chose to lie about what he witnessed, and worse, to attack and defame those who did tell the truth. Moreover, the lies he told deprived millions of his readers in the West of awareness of the real facts and the crucial knowledge of the monstrous nature of the Stalinist regime. Duranty’s journalistic writings helped mightily to shape in the West an appallingly soft and naïve view of Soviet Communism and a sympathetic, if not favorable, view of Stalin.
Beyond his journalistic assistance to Stalin, Duranty became directly involved in US/USSR diplomatic relations. In order to help Stalin’s regime both economically and diplomatically Duranty traveled to the United States with Maxim Litvinov, Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs. Shortly after the visit in November 1933, FDR granted diplomatic relations to Stalin’s regime, an effort sixteen years in the making. In Duranty’s write-up of the negotiations, he noted that “the Soviet Government pledged to abstain from Bolshevist propaganda and guaranteed Americans in Russia freedom of worship.” One might plausibly argue that Duranty’s action on behalf of Stalin was as the initiator of a relationship between FDR and Stalin that would culminate with FDR’s secret conniving to get the US into the Second World War and rescue Stalin’s murderous regime with the lend-lease program. It should also be noted that around this time another force of opinion-shaping in American Journalism, The Nation, published a yearly honor roll of citizens and institutions. It awarded the 1933 honors to The New York Times for printing and Walter Duranty for writing, during the previous decade and a half of Soviet rule, “the most enlightening, dispassionate and readable dispatches from a great nation in the making which appeared in any newspaper in the world.”
Emerging from Taylor’s biography of Duranty is the portrait of a man whose character was deeply steeped in dishonesty. Early in his career, he worked for the New York Times as a reporter in France during the First World War:
He was more writer than reporter. Whatever happened, Duranty would somehow convert it into a good story. And there would always be that mingling of truth and the elements of fiction in his work, a certain liberty — poetic license, if you will — more interpretative, less objective, at times, some would say, fatally flawed by constant wavering and equivocation.
Duranty’s personal dishonesty is well-documented. His rejection and shabby treatment of his family members he covered up in his autobiography, Search for a Key, by a fiction: He was, he wrote, orphaned as an only child at ten by a railway accident that killed his parents. This relieved him, as his biographer notes, of any “unwelcoming questions” about his mother and sister, whom he dropped from his life and ignored in the last days of their lives. Duranty also lied about his opium addiction in his autobiography, saying that it began after an accident that took his leg and that he began using opium to cope with the pain, when in fact he had used opium as a recreational drug much earlier in his life and with considerable frequency.
Duranty, it seems from Taylor’s account, was less of an ideologue than a nihilist and an opportunist. A cynical self-promoter, he impressed those around him as a man who did not seem to believe much in anything. “The deeply held moral convictions of other men,” writes his biographer, “served only to make Duranty uncomfortable, and he liked to believe he was better than they were because he was free from the bonds that tied their hands.”
In summing up Duranty’s performance as a journalist, his biographer writes:
The Ukrainian Famine of 1932-33 remains the greatest man-made disaster ever recorded . . . It was Walter Duranty’s destiny to become, in effect, the symbol for the West’s failure to recognize and understand it at the time.
True, but the fact that Duranty’s photo still hangs in halls of the New York Times and that the Ukrainian famine 90 years later remains a historical episode of little note and attention in comparison with, say, another “Holocaust,” suggests that Duranty’s complicity in covering it up was a piece of a much larger and continuing moral failure by the West. Moreover, the New York Times bears huge responsibility for what Duranty did. “Researchers who have investigated Duranty’s career have found that certain editors at the New York Times did have doubts about his [Duranty’s] coverage of the Soviet Union and never acted to recall him.”
Duranty’s exposure as a compulsive liar and a self-promoting degenerate decades after his death is too little, too late. His photo still hangs in the Times gallery. We now live in a time where the demand is high for “apologies” to be given by the heirs of offending groups to the descendants of wronged groups. Perhaps the New York Times ownership should issue a formal, public apology to the people of Ukraine for helping to hide the truth of the mass murder Stalin inflicted on them from the outside world. That would be a good move . . . for starters.
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 Douglas McCollam, Columbia Journalism Review, November/December 2003, 43.
 Robert Service, Camaradas: Breve Historia del Comunismo (Barcelona: Ediciones B, Depósito legal, 2009), 294.
 S. J. Taylor, Stalin’s Apologist: Walter Duranty, the New York Times’s Man in Moscow (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 267.
 Ibid, 269-70.
 Ibid, 271.
 Ibid, 70.
 Ibid, 206.
 Ibid, 207.
 Ibid, 209.
 Ibid, 110.
 McCollam, 45.
 Taylor, 48.
 Ibid, 27.
 Ibid, 31-32.
 Ibid, 232.
 Ibid, 239-240.
 McCollam, 47.
I’m familiar with the NYTimes building, and my first thought upon seeing this hed was, “Wonder if he knows they’ve got Walter Duranty hanging up in the hallway.” Ah, but you’re way ahead of me. Re the Malcolm Muggeridge connection to Beatrice Webb: the Webbs had quite a little nest of Lefties in their clan. Beatrice’s sister Theresa’s son was Sir Stafford Cripps, the socialist ambassador to the Soviet Union, and aircraft production minister during the War. Malcolm’s wife Kitty Muggeridge (daughter of another sister) wrote a biography of her Aunt Beatrice, but like Malcolm turned quite anti-Bolshie in her later years.
Thank you. This is the real CC.
IMHO this can be converted in a series “Stalins’s Intellectuals“. George B Shaw, Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Einstein, Romain Roland…
Excellent piece, Stephen Paul Foster. Keep ’em coming
Great story. Back then they told whoppers. Now they suppress reporting the big news – Uncle Joe (the Soviet one) would be proud.
One of the best CC pieces, thanks, Mr. Foster!
I wasted a lot of time in my younger years reading NYT. The Walter Duranty of my day was Judith Butler, key instigator of the Iraq War through her fabricated, front-page, investigative articles. The Times even did a bait and switch on the issue around the time that Butler’s lies (and their consequences) became known: throw their affirmative action hire Jason Blair under the bus for fabrications far less serious in order to “cleanse” (supposedly) for the Gray Lady’s reputation. The paper is to be regarded as a fictional mouthpiece of popular culture.
Maybe I am wrong, but I think you are mean to refer to “Judith Miller” not “Judith Butler”.
You’re right, Judith Miller, thank you.
On the show trials and forced confessions: Kerry Bolton, in Stalin – The Enduring Legacy, argues that the accused were indeed (more-or-less) guilty and the court proceedings were not the farce we’ve been led to believe.
Indeed, the trials were a good thing. They were necessary to enable Stalin to rid himself of old-school Bolshevik true-believers and Trotskyite internationalists. He was now free to create a technocratic society which made Russia’s national interest the priority. Stalin was a champion of the traditional family; he banned abortions; rewarded mothers who had many children; opposed modernism in the arts; insisted on strict discipline in education; and encouraged patriotic pride. Why, the guy was basically a dissident rightist in embryo . . .
Bolton’s short book has some telling details and helped me understand why Francis Parker Yockey came to see the Soviet Union as more amenable to his purposes than American liberal democracy.
“Indeed, the trials were a good thing. They were necessary to enable Stalin to rid himself of old-school Bolshevik true-believers and Trotskyite internationalists. He was now free to create a technocratic society which made Russia’s national interest the priority.”
That’s highly debatable. When Stalin croaked in 1953, the goons he left to run the show quickly turned his “technocratic society” into a third world slum with vodka-besotted workers who couldn’t make a decent toaster.
Not only that Stalin’s “show trial” model was soon emulated by the West — Nuremberg, Rudolf Slansky, Slobodan Milošević and more recently James Field (Charlottesville), and Derek Chauvin (Mn).
Yockey, in his early 50s Enemy of Europe, was openly cribbing from the East German propaganda machine. When reading the new edition I took note of some obscure cant idioms then used by the DDR but seldom seen elsewhere. If FPY appears to praise the Soviets, that may or may not be his own sentiment; his aim was to amplify a conversation then going on within Germany.
Harvest of Sorrow was turned into a documentary. It’s worth a watch.
I read somewhere that there are only one or two movies about the Holodomor but at least 150 about the Jewish Holocaust. If that is true, I wonder why?
The Holodomar, for all its horror, is not very dramatic: commissars running about confiscating grain from starving kulak ‘saboteurs’. The Holocaust with its industrialised slaughter of victims, among them sympathetic individuals and intellectuals on the other hand, is replete and the danger lies in avoiding mawkishness or letting the perpetrators and their enablers off the hook. Doubtless ethnic solidarity is also a factor, so that we have seen few films on the Armenian genocide — or the Bengal Famine during WWII for that matter.
He absolutely does belong on the memorial wall. That’s because he was a forerunner of typical modern journalists, who are activists pretending to be reporters. These professional liars are Enemy Number One in my book.
Other than that, Yuri Bezmenov wrote a couple of books about his experiences at the Novosti Press Agency, and how they got Western journalists like Duranty to play ball with them.
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