Fraudulent reporting by Jayson Blair should dislodge the New York Times as the paper of record. Such a downsizing should have happened long ago because of a writer whose lapses were worse.
Mr. Blair filed stories from places he had not been, freighted with fabricated quotes and information either bogus or stolen. His work is in the tradition of Janet Cooke of the Washington Post, whose celebrated tale of a youthful junkie proved to be fiction, and fabulist Stephen Glass of The New Republic, now attempting to cash in on his fraud in a new book. But none of these writers can match the Times’s worst offender.
Walter Duranty was the New York Times’s Moscow correspondent during the hey-day of Soviet adulation. He covered the collectivization campaign in the Ukraine, which aimed to eliminate “as a class” the independent farmers known as kulaks. The ensuing man-made famine in 1932-33 caused deaths in the millions. Mr. Duranty’s reports for the New York Times covered up the mass atrocity and denied that any famine was going on at all.
Mr. Duranty, who won a Pulitzer in 1932, titled his autobiography I Write as I Please but he wrote what the Stalinist regime wanted him to write. There is evidence that Duranty indulged bizarre sexual practices, and that the Soviets used this to blackmail him. Not that he needed the motivation.
Malcolm Muggeridge of the Manchester Guardian, who broke the story of the Ukraine famine, called Duranty the worst liar he had met in 50 years of journalism. Duranty used to say “I put my money on Stalin,” and dismissed Stalin’s mass murder with the quip, “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”
While Muggeridge was assailed for his truthful reporting, Duranty became one of the first celebrity journalists, toasted by Franklin Roosevelt. Duranty’s bogus reports played a role in U.S. recognition of the USSR in 1933.
Duranty was the subject of Stalin’s Apologist, a 1990 work by S. J. Taylor. The New York Times reviewed the book favorably in 1990 and Karl Meyer of the Times editorial board wrote an editorial charging that Duranty’s work was “some of the worst reporting to appear in this newspaper.” The Times, however, has not backed the revocation of Duranty’s Pulitzer, even though Janet Cooke had to give up hers.
The Blair affair is a good time to renew the call for revocation. It is also a good time to reconsider how the Times, in light of Duranty, became the newspaper of record, and whether such a concept is even valid.
Today’s newsroom culture is driven by a politically correct ethos that elevates diversity over accuracy and enables falsifiers such as Jayson Blair to thrive. Those who doubt the disposition to believe what is politically correct, and to confuse facts with fiction, should consider this item:
An article on Nov. 10 about animal rights referred erroneously to an island in the Indian Ocean and to events there involving goats and endangered giant sea sparrows that could possibly lead to the killing of goats by environmental groups. Wrightson Island does not exist; both the island and the events are hypothetical figments from a book (also mentioned in the article), Beginning Again, by David Ehrenfeld. No giant sea sparrow is known to be endangered by the eating habits of goats.
The source is the December 15, 2002, corrections section of the New York Times.
— Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley is editorial director of the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco.