Announcing the Winners of the Inaugural Walter Duranty Prize
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.
SECOND RUNNER-UP by Ron Radosh
Radosh: Today, it is my privilege to present the Second Runner-up Walter Duranty award to Andrew Sullivan, the writer and blogger for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. Sullivan is worthy of the award for three specific themes which recur in his writing.
The first is his solitary fight on what he considers one of the most horrendous crimes committed against human beings -- in this case, on male babies. I refer of course to what Sullivan calls “genital mutilation,” or as most of us refer to it, "circumcision."
In the past few weeks, he has returned to the issue many times. In the face of medical evidence and major scientific studies that prove the worthiness and health benefits of circumcision, Sullivan offers the following reason why he believes the practice developed: “Foreskins,” he writes, “are much harder to keep clean in dusty and arid places like deserts.”
Judaism and Islam are “desert religions,” and thus religious belief led us to institute a barbaric practice that deprives a child of what human evolution wrought, without his permission. Parents, then, have been engaged in mutilation of their own sons without giving it a thought.
The second reason Andrew Sullivan deserves the prize is for his neverending and relentless crusade to prove that Sarah Palin was not the mother of her Down Syndrome baby, Trig.
As he wrote one year ago, the failure of the media to expose this truth is as important as its failure “to challenge the facts about the rush to war against Iraq.” Acknowledging that he does not know whom the mother is, or indeed whether or not Palin is actually Trig’s mother, Sullivan writes: “If Palin has lied about this, it is the most staggering, appalling deception in the history of American politics.” Considering that the list of deceptions and cover-ups in most observers’ lexicon includes events like Watergate, or the failure of the Roosevelt administration to let the truth be known about Soviet responsibility for the massacre of Polish officers at Katyn, Andrew Sullivan’s conception of what allows one to describe Palin’s would-be lie in such dramatic terms defies imagination.
As he confesses, “only Joe McGinnis seems to give a damn.” As most of us know, McGinnis’ book on Palin was a complete bomb. He had no revelations of worth, and every reviewer trashed it -- for good reasons. One of those reasons was that McGinnis revealed himself to be Sullivan’s only backer and a fellow Trig birther, thereby ending any credibility he was thought to have.
Third, Sullivan deserves the award for being Barack Obama’s greatest cheerleader -- a stance appreciated by the president, who told the press that he regularly reads Sullivan’s blog. Only once was Sullivan critical of the president -- when, after Obama’s recent speech to the UN, Sullivan complained that the president appeared to be supportive of Israel because of an apparent threat to its existence from Iran. After all, Sullivan wrote: “There is only one nuclear power in the Middle East and it … has launched several pre-emptive wars on its neighbors near and far.”
If you have any doubts about what Sullivan thinks of Israel, his answer came in a column he wrote only a few days ago: “We give the Israelis everything they ask for and they give the U.S. nothing in return. In fact, they have operated as a foe, not friend, greeting Obama with the Gaza assault, deliberately destroying Obama's Cairo's outreach to the Arab-Muslim world with their settlement policy, confirming every conspiracy theorist in the Middle East.” With Netanyahu as prime minister, he concludes: “Israel is not our ally.” Anyone wanting evidence for how much Andrew Sullivan is outside the consensus about the relationship between the U.S. and Israel should look no further.
Finally, we must also cite Sullivan’s over-the-top cover story for Newsweek on Obama. In his eyes, the president is a conciliator of the center willing to work with Republicans, but foiled by right-wing Republicans bent only on his destruction. He does not refer to Bob Woodward’s new book, in which Woodward reveals Obama as a chief executive who eschewed cooperation across the aisle and sought instead to implement an unpopular health care program without any Republican support. Reading his words, our PJ Media colleague Richard Fernandez commented that Sullivan’s paragraphs: “ … are destined for greatness. It leaves one slack-jawed, unable to credit the words on the page. You have to read it twice to make sure you weren’t hallucinating.”
Watching the first presidential debate, Andrew Sullivan blogged: “Romney has taken charge, even as Obama has spoken more,” managing to make the issue one of the “status-quo versus change dynamic.” Romney, he wrote, “is kicking the president’s ass.” As for his closing statement, Sullivan called it: “F…… sad, confused and lame.” Obama, he said, “may have even lost the election tonight.”
Hence, should Romney win the election, Andrew Sullivan’s worst nightmare would come true, and he would then receive an award that might cause him even more discomfort than the one he is receiving tonight.
FIRST RUNNER-UP by Roger Kimball
Kimball: The selection committee of the 2012 Walter Duranty Prize for Journalistic Mendacity is delighted to award its commendation and second-place prize to Bob Simon for his supremely untruthful report “Christians of the Holy Land,” which aired last April on CBS’s storied news show 60 Minutes.
Expert practitioners of the art of mendacity from the time of the sophist Callicles have advised their pupils, when telling a lie, to make it a big one. This Mr. Simon did with consummate bravado. Not for him the subtle misrepresentation, the quiet fudging of a fact, the deft deployment of misleading innuendo. No, Bob Simon started with a doozy: the “one place where Christians are not suffering from violence” in the Middle East, he reports, “is the Holy Land.”
Who knew? Yes, he admits, Muslims are persecuting Christians -- and Jews, too, of course -- in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere, but in and around the birthplace of Jesus, Christians are unmolested by Muslims. Nevertheless, they are fleeing the Holy Land in droves. This puzzles Mr. Simon. He took the formidable resources of CBS and went with 60 Minutes to the Holy Land to find out why.
We on the Committee of the Duranty Prize were surprised at Bob Simon’s surprise -- or what might more accurately be called his feigned surprise. For surely his in-depth, on-the-ground, walk-the-streets-and-interview-colorful-natives investigation uncovered what is patent to even a cursory examination of the facts about the persecution of Christians by Muslim Palestinians.
We think, for example, of the at least 14 homes of Christian Palestinians that were burnt to the ground by a Muslim mob in 2005 in the West Bank because a Christian man was dating a Muslim woman. What provocation!
We think also of that catalogue, assembled by Church leaders and reported by the London Telegraph, of the nearly 100 incidents of abuse perpetrated, in the words of one commentator, by an “Islamic fundamentalist mafia against Palestinian Christians.” Comparing the tone and substance of “Christians of the Holy Land” with the historical reality, the Committee instantly understood that in Bob Simon we had a practitioner of journalist untruthfulness worthy of comparison with his great precursor, Walter Duranty.
The Committee was also deeply impressed by the breadth and versatility of Bob Simon’s mendacity. For not only did Mr. Simon blithely deny the reality of Arab violence against Christians in the Holy Land, he also skillfully and brazenly laid the blame for Christians’ fleeing the area at the feet of the Israelis -- as if Israel’s policy of self-defense precipitated the exodus of Christians from the Holy Land.
Mr. Simon also blatantly misrepresented the character of the documents he drew upon for evidence. He suggested, for example, that the so-called Kairos Document, a statement issued by a group of left-leaning Palestinian Christian pastors in 2009, was a blueprint for peace, when in fact it is a noxious specimen of anti-Israel propaganda that also whitewashed Palestinian acts of terrorism as “legal resistance,” a description that other Christian groups have rightly rejected as “repugnant.”
Bob Simon furthermore followed anti-Israeli Palestinian propaganda in falsely describing the nature of the security barrier that protects Bethlehem. He said that it “completely surrounds” the city, transforming it into “an open-air prison.” But as he must know from the evidence of his own eyes, the barrier lies to the north and west of the city only.
In the course of his report, Bob Simon interviews and rudely baits Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., who told him the “major duress” on Christians in the West Bank comes from Muslims. In response, Simon trotted out a Christian Palestinian businessman who denied it -- but whose very livelihood depends on the good will of Muslim Palestinians. As one commentator for the Committee for Accuracy for Middle East Reporting in America asked: “Did Simon really expect to get [this] prominent businessman with a lot to lose … to admit to problems with the Muslim majority in Palestinian society in an on-camera conversation with two other people sitting next to him? Is this what passes for investigative reporting at 60 Minutes?”
On a personal note, I would like to register the fond place that 60 Minutes occupies in my memory. I do not much watch that or any other television news show these days, but in years past my wife and I would often spend Sunday evening with Bill and Pat Buckley who lived near us in Connecticut. No Sunday evening could proceed without taking in 60 Minutes together before dinner. I found the segments sometimes informative, occasionally tendentious, but no episode I recall commanded the breathtaking mendacity displayed by Bob Simon’s piece of anti-Israeli propaganda masquerading as concerned journalism.
“Christians of the Holy Land” is a textbook case of deploying the trappings and authority of objective reporting in order to further the ends of ideology. Bob Simon, though unworthy of the canons of responsible journalism intermittently upheld at CBS, is nevertheless a flagrantly successful embodiment of the spirit of mendacity that the Walter Duranty Prize was founded to commemorate. Congratulations, Bob Simon, on your award. You richly deserve it.
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.