PERSPECTIVES

by Andrew Fedynsky


Suppressing the news at CNN and The New York Times

Two items juxtaposed in the April 13 Sunday Week in Review section of The New York Times caught my attention. First, there were four letters to the editor on page 12, condemning CNN after its chief news executive, Eason Jordan, acknowledged in an op-ed piece two days earlier that the network had suppressed stories of Iraqi brutality because it feared government reprisals against its employees, especially Iraqis. One letter writer called the revelation "troubling." Another commented about "the destruction [Mr. Jordan's] silence has done to the credibility of his news organization." "What price is acceptable for media profit?" a third letter writer asks.

Ironically - one could even say cynically - on page 14, The Times also posted its annual listing of its Pulitzer Prize winners. As I've done for several years now, I checked and sure enough, he's still there: Walter Duranty, a 1932 winner "for coverage of the news from Russia." No asterisk, no explanation, no apology.

In case you haven't been following it, Walter Duranty's listing is fraught with controversy. In 1932, Stalin's collectivization campaign was at its height, the Terror-Famine was well under way and Duranty was a major player, not by reporting the news but by suppressing it, indeed inventing it. In November, for example, with official Moscow a buzz over the human catastrophe raging in the Ukrainian countryside, Mr. Duranty wrote, "there is no famine or actual starvation nor is there likely to be."

As it turned out that was untrue and he knew it. Mr. Duranty's colleagues and Western diplomats recounted private conversations where he told them that millions were dying. Indeed, in a September 1933 dispatch, the British chargé d'affaires to Moscow, citing Duranty as his source, reported as many as ten million famine victims in Ukraine, the Northern Caucasus and the Volga Region. At the same time, Duranty, by now a Pulitzer Prize winner, was telling his readers, "any report of a famine in Russia [sic] is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda." No wonder Malcolm Muggeridge of the Manchester Guardian, who witnessed the Famine and reported it honestly, called Duranty "the greatest liar of any journalist I have met."

In its op-ed piece in The New York Times, CNN claims to have suppressed unfavorable news to protect innocent Iraqis. Mr. Duranty did it to protect Stalin and his henchmen. In return, he received privileged access, including interviews with Stalin himself. The Pulitzer Committee was so impressed, it awarded Duranty its coveted prize, which the Times lists along with the 88 others the newspaper and its staff have won.

Many journalism professionals, Ukrainian Americans and others are troubled that The New York Times continues to honor Mr. Duranty for effectively collaborating with one of history's most monstrous dictators and wonder whether people at the New York Times are equally troubled over the ghastly way its pages were abused? We don't know. As far as I can tell, they've never publicly addressed the problem, not even publishing a letter to the editor.

So does it matter? Well, of course. To begin with, basic journalistic ethics do not scruple deliberate lies or the reporters who craft them. There are also important political consequences that flow out of a flawed and uncorrected historical record.

Because they lacked a state of their own, Ukrainians became serfs in the Russian Empire. Their language was banned; their culture forcibly suppressed. By the 20th century, though, Ukrainians were well on their way to statehood, only to lose untold millions to state-sponsored terrorism and cultural annihilation in the Soviet Union. Now, just as Jews look to Israel as a guarantee against another Holocaust, Ukrainians see their independence as a guarantee against an assault on their culture or another genocidal famine. Still, after 12 years of statehood, Ukraine's future is not guaranteed. Writing in the May Atlantic, Robert Kagan wonders "whether Ukraine will survive as an independent country or will it at some point be drawn into a resurgent Russian empire."

Today's Ukraine has plenty of critics who cite its shortcomings and dysfunctions but fail to acknowledge - perhaps because they don't know - how the country got to this point, how the culture lost its most creative talents in the Great Terror, how the economy lost its most productive farmers; no one even knows how many: the census takers were killed, their data destroyed and new numbers made up for people like Duranty to report to the world. Eventually, the lie was accepted as truth. Over the decades, Soviet censorship and disinformation erased memory of the Famine. Today, even highly educated people barely heard about it. Against all evidence, some even continue to deny it ever happened.

As a country reshapes itself - indeed, as Ukraine must in the face of its evident problems - it's more important now than ever that the historical record be known. That's the only way to get perspective for the overdue decisions that will shape the country's cultural policies, its agriculture, its economy and foreign policy.

So what to do? How might the "Gray Lady" address the problem she has with Walter Duranty? Perhaps the paper should look at the way it addressed another of its journalistic shortcomings. Two years ago, in a special section devoted to the newspaper's 150th anniversary, a retired editor turned the microscope on The Times' coverage of the Holocaust and found the paper had stumbled badly by not giving that catastrophe more prominent treatment while it was happening, relegating it for the most part to the back pages. He called it the most serious lapse in the newspaper's history and cited how that has been corrected over the past three or four decades with on-going, prominent Holocaust coverage. This is an admirable model.

Now after 70 years, it's in the newspaper's best interest to bring the festering scandal over Duranty to a close, as well, with an honest look at how its reporters and editors covered the Terror-Famine. I bet the paper reaches the same conclusion others did long ago: that Walter Duranty brings shame and dishonor to the Pulitzer Prize and the newspaper that published his stories.

A good start would be for the staff at The New York Times to read their own letters to the editor section. In response to CNN's admission of covering up atrocities from Iraq, one letter writer chose to praise the network instead of condemning it: "I applaud Eason Jordan of CNN for having the courage to admit it. Maybe his mea culpa will be contagious." Wow! Now wouldn't that be news that's fit to print!


Andrew Fedynsky's e-mail address is: fedynsky@stratos.net.


Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, April 27, 2003, No. 17, Vol. LXXI


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