Last night in New York City, The New Criterion and PJ Media hosted an event to bestow the inaugural Walter Duranty Prizes for Mendacity in Journalism.
PJ Media’s Roger Simon, who hatched the idea for the awards along with TNC’s Roger Kimball, provided an introduction to what the legacy of Walter Duranty meant for the night’s honorees (the full transcripts of all the speeches are here, and some video is here). Most of our readers probably know the Duranty story, too, but for those who don’t, Simon’s précis:
For some fourteen years Walter Duranty, then the most famous and respected foreign correspondent in the world — also, as it happens, a Brit — hitewashed 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.”
The Times, it should be noted, never returned the embarrassing Pulitzer (perhaps some day soon they’ll auction it off in bankruptcy proceedings). The key part of the Duranty story, though, is that he didn’t do this out of ideological allegiance or faith in the Communist project (unlike the recently departed Eric Hobsbawm). No, as Simon explained:
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.
With those guiding principles, the following prizes were given:
The second runner-up, described by Ron Radosh, was Andrew Sullivan of the Daily Beast. Radosh cited three of his obsessions in the process: “his solitary fight on what he considers one of the most horrendous crimes committed against human beings . . . what Sullivan calls ‘genital mutilation,’ or as most of us refer to it, ‘circumcision’”; what Sullivan calls “the most staggering, appalling deception in the history of American politics,” that is, what he sees as the cover-up around the parentage of Sarah Palin’s son Trig; and as Radosh explained, “being Barack Obama’s greatest cheerleader — a stance appreciated by the president, who told the press that he regularly reads Sullivan’s blog. . . . 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.”
Roger Kimball presented the first runner-up prize to Bob Simon, “for his supremely untruthful report, ‘Christians of the Holy Land’” on 60 Minutes. Kimball explained:
The Duranty Committee was . . . 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.”
Last, the choice for the top prize was perhaps a predictable one, but no less superb for it. Claudia Rosett described the “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,’” the joint responsibility of editor Anna Wintour and writer Joan Juliet Buck.
Rosett regaled the audience with Buck’s mendacious and mellifluous account of “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.” Rosett explained:
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.
The crowning accomplishment of Wintour and Buck, however, is that like Duranty, they have gone about the embarrassing aftermath of publication, in which Asma Assad and her husband have overseen the deaths of 30,000 Syrians, providing what Rosett called “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.’”
Simon and Kimball, and PJ Media and The New Criterion, have begun a wonderful tradition which should provide plenty of amusement and proper doses of shame for years to come. One does wonder how they’ll ever manage to top Vogue’s incredibly poor sense of timing and callous disregard for humanity. But then again, this is the modern media we’re talking about.