WHY A DURANTY PRIZE?
What are we doing here? A couple of years ago Roger Kimball and I came up with the idea that The New Criterion and PJ Media should join forces to give an annual prize in honor — or dishonor, as the case may be — of the somewhat notorious Moscow bureau chief of the New York Times between 1922 and 1936, Walter Duranty.
I say “somewhat notorious” because not too many people outside the insular media world know who he was — but they should. To review for those in this room — most of whom do know — for some fourteen years Walter Duranty, then the most famous and respected foreign correspondent in the world — also, as it happens, a Brit — whitewashed the repressive evil deeds of the Soviet Union, leading to that country’s recognition by none other than Franklin D. Roosevelt, while winning a 1932 Pulitzer Prize for his efforts.
He did this whitewashing most prominently in the case of the Ukrainian Holodomor: the forced starvation of between 1.2 and 12 million ethnic Ukrainians, depending on whose estimates you believe. In other words, a lot of people. Duranty called that genocide “an exaggeration and malignant propaganda” in the newspaper of record. He also covered up the show trial of the British engineers who were tortured into falsely confessing that they were trying to sabotage Stalin’s Five-Year Plan … and similar events … all the time excusing those Soviet misdeeds with what became his personal mantra: “You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.”
Meanwhile, he fiercely attacked those who dared criticize him, particularly the brave Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, who risked his life to report on the Holodomor, and the British author Malcolm Muggeridge, who returned the compliment by calling Duranty: “The greatest liar I have met in fifty years of journalism.”
Virtually the same year he was winning his Pulitzer, Duranty was reassuring Soviet authorities that he would allow them to vet all reports about their country before they appeared in The New York Times — effectively making that newspaper a U.S. branch of Pravda, for a time anyway.
So why did Walter Duranty do all this? What motivated him to write this way, to lie so flagrantly seemingly without conscience?
That was the primary question that compelled my wife Sheryl Longin and me when we started to do research for our stage play The Party Line, in which Duranty is one of the main characters and of which you have a copy tonight.
Our assumption, like most people, was that Duranty was driven by ideology. The line about the eggs and the omelet sounds suspiciously like a folksy version of: “The ends justify the means.”
But it turned out not to be true. Duranty wasn’t much of a leftist at all. In fact, on several occasions he dismissed communism as a system suitable only for the East, for primitive Russians who craved and needed a strong leader like Comrade Joe, and as something that wouldn’t work in the West.
No, Duranty’s motives were far more personal and modern. Even postmodern.
Dr. Johnson famously told us: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money” — making a lot of bloggers blockheads, but never mind. For Duranty it was money, but it was more than that. No, he wasn’t a communist, although communists certainly used him. He was instead a bohemian of his time, a friend and follower of the Satanist Aleister Crowley, steeped in sex, drugs, and rock and roll before there was any rock and roll, who was snatched from the absinthe bars of Paris to be the Moscow correspondent for The New York Times.
A modern narcissist par excellence, Duranty did what he did for power and acclaim, to be the man in Moscow, the most listened to correspondent on the most important story of his time. To be feted at the Waldorf Astoria — which he was. To be hugely famous, or to borrow the title of Leo Braudy’s book, for The Frenzy of Renown … Vanity Fair, if you will.
In that way he is like our award winners tonight — although perhaps he went a bit further. Like Duranty, none of them are communists, at least as far as I know. But they certainly lust after Vanity Fair, to one degree or another. They have allowed their desire to be chic, to be outrageous or modern and trendy, to be popular kids with the political in-crowd, to overshadow everything they do and to warp their writing beyond the normal bias into outright distortion and propaganda. They should be a lesson to all of us.
And a warning to the public.
A recent Pew Poll showed public dissatisfaction with the mass media has reached what Pew called a “fresh high,” with 60 percent of Americans saying they have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly. Personally, I wonder who the forty percent are. But again, never mind.
We hope the Duranty Prize, acting as a warning, will do its little bit to correct that.
Before I relinquish the podium, a word about our methods. Some months ago, PJ Media and The New Criterion publicized this prize and solicited nominations from our readerships, which then were vetted by a committee of professional writers and journalists, some of whom are with us tonight: Peter Collier, Cliff May, Ron Radosh, Glenn Reynolds, Claudia Rosett, and the two Rogers — Kimball and Simon. We received over 150 different nominations, but ended up hewing remarkably close to the recommendations of our readerships. We abjured only one of the top four nominees — NBC for its selective editing in the Trayvon Martin case, because we could not determine culpability. We have learned, however, that NBC is being sued in the case, so that will be adjudicated in the courts — unless the network settles, of course.
So now, on to our prizes.