DURANTY PRIZE WINNER by Claudia Rosett
Rosett: Good evening, and fair warning. What you are about to hear will not endear any of us to the fashion police.
Choosing the winner of the first Walter Duranty prize at first seemed daunting. As you have just heard, there were a great many richly qualified contenders. But as our prize committee worked through the entries, there was one dispatch that stood out. Not only did it exemplify the Duranty spirit, but it did so in ways so Potemkin, so self-absorbed and so extravagantly intent on peddling terror-linked dictatorship as an exercise in elegance and good taste, that we knew we had a winner.
This story was a joint accomplishment of writer and editor, so it is a shared award. The selection committee is pleased to bestow the Walter Duranty Prize for Journalistic Mendacity on reporter Joan Juliet Buck and editor Anna Wintour, for their combined feats of on-site reporting, headline packaging, impeccable timing, and fearless dismissal of the truth in Vogue magazine’s astounding March 2011 cover story: “Asma al-Assad: A Rose in the Desert.”
Styled as a profile of the first lady of Syria, Asma al-Assad, this article was a paragon of propaganda — a makeover of the Assad dictatorship, presenting Asma as the human face of President Bashar al-Assad’s rule: “glamorous, young and very chic.”
Reported and published on the verge of the Syrian uprising and bloody government crackdown that began early last year, in which to date more than 30,000 people have died, “Rose in the Desert” glossed over the horrific realities of Syria’s despotism — which were abundantly evident even before the 2011 carnage, at least to anyone who cared to browse the reams of human rights reports and terror cases.
Instead, Vogue showcased as a breathless scoop a portrait of Syria’s ruling couple as a pair of classy and benevolent aristocrats; the kind of couple any self-respecting member of the global elite could admire and endorse without violating standards of either morality or the latest trends in Parisian footwear.
Ms. Buck, for whom Vogue obtained extraordinary access to the Assads, gushed about Asma as “the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies … breezy, conspiratorial, and fun … a thin long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind who dresses with cunning understatement.” Ms. Buck treated her readers to visions of Asma waking at dawn to begin her charitable rounds, including her campaign urging millions of young Syrians to engage in “active citizenship.” There were vignettes of Asma flying around Syria in a French-built corporate jet, or careening through traffic behind the wheel of a plain SUV, en route to museums, schools, and orphanages, a study in “energetic grace,” deftly accessorized with little more than a necklace of Chanel agates; shoes and Syrian silk tote bag by French designer Christian Louboutin.
Then there was Asma at home, with her husband and three young children, in their thoroughly modern apartment, where Asma herself, dressed in jeans, t-shirt, and old suede stiletto boots, answers the front door, and whips up fondue for lunch. This was a presidential dwelling, as reported by Ms. Buck, where neighbors freely peered in and dropped by; a household “run on wildly democratic principles” where Asma explains: “We all vote on what we want.”
In this wildly democratic household, the dictator of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, makes his low-key entrance as “the off-duty president,” wearing jeans, playing with his children, and praising his previous profession of ophthalmology as one he chose because “there is very little blood.”
This is the husband, we learn, to whom the dazzling, urbane, London-born Asma says she is grateful, because in wooing her away from her narrow career as a banker to become the first lady of Syria, he gave her back something she had lost — the chance to experience the world around her.
So, what was that world around her? What about the Assad regime’s dynastic grip on power, maintained even in Syria’s relatively calm moments by a long record of terrorist bombings, assassinations, and brutal domestic repression? What about the jailing and torture doled out for years to Syrian dissidents who dared demand anything remotely resembling the “democratic principles” attributed to the Assad household? What about the iron rule with which the same Assad regime that bankrolled Asma’s taste for Louboutin and Chanel had beggared the Syrian people? What about the use of the medieval torture rack in Syria’s prisons, the collaboration with Iran, the terrorists bunking down in the capital, and the North Koreans testing missiles out back?
In the Duranty tradition, Ms. Buck did not completely ignore the troubling aspects of Assad’s regime. Much as Duranty in his day reported that Ukrainians, then starving to death under communist rule, had “shortages,” Ms. Buck noted that in modern Syria, the “shadow zones” were “dark and deep.” Observing that Syria, when she went there in late 2010, had a reputation as the safest country in the Middle East, Ms. Buck speculated this was “possibly” due to the pervasive state surveillance. The Assad regime’s resident terrorists she stitched into her story as a dash of color: there were Hezbollah souvenir ashtrays in the souk, and you could “spot the Hamas leadership racing through the bar of the Four Seasons.”
But all that, implied Ms. Buck, might be changing under the rule of the vibrant, open, glamorous, caring, wildly democratic, and ever-so-chic Assads.
Such an article would have been a monstrous travesty at any stage of Assad’s rule. But with remarkable timing — for which we must credit editor-in-chief Anna Wintour — Vogue packaged “A Rose in the Desert” as the cover story of its March 2011 issue. The magazine hit the stands and the story hit the internet as the uprisings of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya were spreading to Syria.
With Syrians engaging in rather more active citizenship than Asma, in her charity works, apparently had in mind, the Assad regime tried to suppress the uprising by killing its own fellow citizens — shooting, shelling, jailing, torturing, and murdering even children. Unlike in Duranty’s day, thanks to modern technology it did not take long for these horrors to hit the headlines. Vogue’s paean to the Assads was abruptly exposed as one of modern journalism’s most mortally embarrassing makeovers.
With instincts worthy of the old Soviet politburo, or for that matter, the Assad dictatorship, Vogue’s initial response was neither to apologize nor to correct the record, but simply to delete the article from its web site.
Though the tale doesn’t quite end there.
Both Ms. Buck and Ms. Wintour have since recanted the article. Under some circumstances, that might have disqualified them from the Duranty Prize. But in both cases, the recanting was not so much an apology as a justification, an approach so self-involved that it meets in spades the criterion outlined by Roger Simon of “modern narcissism par excellence.”
This past June, well over a year after publishing “A Rose in the Desert,” Ms. Wintour finally released a statement that was largely about deflecting blame. Vogue, she explained, had entertained high hopes for the Assad regime, but “as the terrible events of the past year and a half unfolded in Syria, it became clear that its priorities and values were completely at odds with those of Vogue.”
The month after that — and more than 16 months after the now infamous article — Ms. Buck finally published her own recantation of sorts. To her credit, she denounced the Assads, deplored the carnage in Syria, and tipped out a litany of damning details observed while visiting the Assads but omitted from her original article.
But to call it a full-throated apology would be inaccurate. Ms. Buck’s deepest sympathies seemed reserved for herself.
Writing in Newsweek under the headline “Mrs. Assad Duped Me: My notorious interview with Mrs. Assad, the first lady of hell,” Ms. Buck said she was initially reluctant to take on the Syria assignment, but did so at the urging of her editors at Vogue. Plus, a 2008 article in the British Conde Nast Traveller had described the “increasing hipness” of Damascus, and by 2010, Syria’s status, wrote Ms. Buck, was oscillating between “untrustworthy rogue state and new cool place.” In taking the road to Damascus, Ms. Buck was following in the footsteps of such luminaries as Representative Nancy Pelosi, Senator John Kerry, Sting, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, and Francis Ford Coppola, as well as a public relations firm, Brown Lloyd James, hired by Mrs. Assad, which arranged the Vogue interview.
For the Vogue cover story that then emerged, Ms. Buck blamed everyone and everything from Vogue to the Assads to her own apparently inescapable work ethic: “I didn’t want to write this piece. But I always finished what I started.” By her account, Vogue’s editors overrode her prepublication misgivings, and then asked her not to talk about the article. Ms. Buck dutifully kept her silence until after Vogue had declined, some nine months later, to renew her contract. Cast adrift, she lamented in Newsweek that she had become a victim: “There was no way of knowing that this piece would cost me my livelihood and end the association I had had with Vogue since I was 23.”
Given Vogue’s original enthusiasm for the project, we can understand Ms. Buck’s shock when she was dropped by her long-time editors. But did she, and they, really have no clue from the get-go that their joint concoction, “A Rose in the Desert,” was a marvel of journalistic mendacity?
In sum, for their stalwart efforts first to cast Syria’s dictatorship as a fashion statement, and then to cover — or erase — their tracks in ways so self-serving that even now they continue to mislead, we congratulate the winners of the Walter Duranty Prize, Anna Wintour and Joan Juliet Buck.