Roger L. Simon

Burning Down the New York Times in Three Acts - Act 2: Walter Duranty Meets the Holocaust (text version)

[This is the text version of the second of my “Talking Through My Hat” episodes on the New York Times that was already released as a video on PJTV. Video version here. All “Talking Through My Hat,” including episode one of the NYT, here.]

At the end of Act 1, I promised to discuss what many consider the most egregious case of prevarication on the pages of the New York Times –the misreporting of Joseph Stalin’s forced starvation of millions of Ukrainian peasants by the NYT’s Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty.

Some say that policy of Stalin’s was equal in horror and death count to the Holocaust itself. And yet Duranty papered it over in the Times, reporting after a visit to the area that while there were some scattered shortages, a true famine – forced or otherwise – did not exist. After all, as Duranty so often explained, “You had to break a few eggs to make an omelet.”

This was 1932. The Gulag Archipelago – the infamous forced labor camps of the Soviet Union so thoroughly exposed by Alexander Solzehnitsyn – had already been in existence since 1918. A “few eggs” indeed.

So who was this guy who was this guy?

Duranty himself wasn’t really a wannabe Bolshevik. He was more of of a wannabe novelist, a bohemian who, like many of us, in his early years, did a lot of drugs and participated in the bi-sexual Satanist rituals of Aleister Crowley…

Well, at least, the drugs part…. I guess you could say that Duranty – who sported a wooden leg from a train accident and was a prodigious womanizer, hanging out with visiting Barnard coeds at the bar of Moscow’s Metropole Hotel to give them the lowdown on the new communist utopia – was a sort of a Dr. Hunter S. Thompson of his time.

But unlike Hunter – who acknowledged he made half of everything up and was really writing mostly about himself and his demons – people actually took Duranty seriously as a reporter, people like… the Pulitzer committee, which gave him its foreign correspondent prize in 1931 and, more importantly, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who relied upon Duranty’s favorable New York Times coverage to give Stalin what he so coveted – recognition of the Soviet Union by the United States of America.

How did this come to pass? Why did the Times keep him in place as Moscow Bureau Chief for over a decade? Well, I don’t know really. I wasn’t there and wasn’t witness to the internal meetings at the paper when Duranty’s reports came in. Of course he was just about the most famous foreign correspondents in the world at that time and the paper had a vested interest, financial and promotional, in believing him, even though others like Britain’s Malcolm Muggeridge, who called Duranty one of the greatest liars in the history of journalism, and Scotland’s Gareth Jones were writing in major newspapers that the Ukrainians were dying like flies.

That’s bad enough, but how about this?

In 1931, A. W. Kleifoth of the U.S. Embassy in Berlin wrote a memo to his superiors at the State Department about a meeting he just had with Duranty. The two discussed the Russian grain harvest and whether the famine conditions that were spreading through the USSR would worsen. Kleifoth wrote the following regarding what to expect from Duranty’s reporting coming out of the Soviet Union in his paper: “in agreement with the New York Times and the Soviet authorities, his official dispatches always reflect the official position of the Soviet regime and not his own.”

In agreement with the New York Times and Soviet authorities? Hmm…. Does that remind you of something? Well, it does me and I first found out about it on the oped page of the New York Times, of all places, in a piece written by CNN’s then Executive Producer Eason Jordan. In it Jordan confessed that CNN had soft-pedaled the horrors of Saddam Hussein’s regime… you know, the rape rooms, tongues being cut out, people being thrown off roofs and all that…. to gain access to Iraq.

It was all about access for CNN. Kind of like Duranty and the Soviet Union. The reporter wanted to have the first interview of Comrade Stalin for the New York Times. He didn’t get it actually. That privilege went to Eugene Lyons. But Duranty made up for being second by his adulation, heaping praise on the father of the gulag for the home office on 44th street and thus cementing himself as the number one reporter from Moscow.

When, years later, a group of Ukrainians protested Duranty’s Pulitzer, Times publisher Arthur “Pinch” Sulzberger Jr., apparently loathe to give back even one prize, wrote the committee, warning them about withdrawing the award to the author of such now laughable propaganda as “Stalinism Solving Minorities Problem”. (He certainly did that!) “Pinch” admonished that “the board would be setting a precedent for revisiting its judgments over many decades.'” The award has never been withdrawn.

Of course these things don’t happen in modern times, do they, Jayson Blair?

But it was only a few years after the Ukrainian Holodomor that the better known Holocaust occurred, although the New York Times was not significantly better at reporting that either. In fact, the NYT was curiously passive in bringing news of the Shoah to the American public, which remained ignorant of the extent of the Holocaust for many years.

As Laura Leff wrote, “From the start of the war in Europe to its end nearly six years later, the story of the Holocaust made the Times front page only 26 times out of 24,000 front-page stories, and most of those stories referred to the victims as “refugees” or “persecuted minorities.” In only six of those stories were Jews identified on page one as the primary victims. Nor did the story lead the paper, appearing in the right-hand column reserved for the day’s most important news – not even when the concentration camps were liberated at the end of the war.”

Strange, huh, considering the paper is owned by a Jewish-American family? Perhaps we can ascribe it to being a sign of the times from an era when Jews were excluded from country clubs and the like – a management uneasy about calling attention to themselves. Or perhaps there is a deeper malaise.

Next time, in our concluding episode, we’ll examine that malaise – and speculate on some of its root causes – as well as take a short detour into the curious relationship between the New York Times reporter Herbert Matthews and the rise of Fidel Castro…. Am I detecting a pattern here?…. Well, maybe…. Or maybe I’ve just been Talking Through My Hat.