The shame of the Times

Bruce Bartlett

7/4/2006 12:01:00 AM - Bruce Bartlett

The New York Times is very upset that it has been singled out for revealing a government program that tracks terrorists through financial transactions. The Times notes that the same story was simultaneously broken by the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times, but so far they have not come in for the same criticism.

One reason for this disparate treatment is that the New York Times has no reservoir of goodwill to fall back on. Because of its past actions, people are disinclined to give it the benefit of the doubt when its judgment and patriotism are questioned.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Herbert L. Matthews, a Times reporter who virtually put Fidel Castro in power by excusing and covering up his crimes, and making him seem like the second coming of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln combined. But even more serious charges have long been leveled at another Times reporter: Walter Duranty, who covered the Soviet Union for the paper for many critical years in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

The charge against Duranty is that he knew about Josef Stalin's policy of deliberately starving the people of Ukraine to punish them for defiance, and intentionally kept this news out of the Times. It is likely that the glare of publicity on this monstrous crime in a paper as important as the Times probably would have caused Stalin to back off, potentially saving millions of lives. Adding insult to injury, in the view of many critics, is that Duranty received a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting in 1932, which the Times still proudly lists among those the paper has won.

Duranty first arrived in Moscow in 1921, and saw communism as a great experiment. He was no communist himself, but he admired the Soviets' toughness and willingness to do what was necessary to bring a poor, backward country into the top tier of nations. Consequently, he consistently looked the other way, excused or rationalized the forced labor camps, purges and other acts of brutality as part of the price that had to be paid to achieve greatness. As Duranty famously put it, "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs."

The famine of 1932-33 was the culmination of a long struggle between the Soviet state, non-Russian nationalities like the Ukrainians and historically independent-minded farmers who had been forced onto collective farms. It also resulted from Stalin's need for foreign exchange to buy Western machinery to aid industrialization.

To get grain, quotas on the collective farms were steadily raised to more than 50 percent of the harvest. This left farmers with too little for their own needs and not enough for the next year's planting. They began hiding grain, making it harder for Moscow to get the grain it needed for export.

In late 1932, Stalin decreed that all grain should be confiscated and anyone interfering with this action should be considered an enemy of the state. More than 5,000 people received the death penalty as a result. Throughout the countryside in Ukraine and other grain-growing areas, starvation set in. Stalin sent troops to prevent farmers from leaving the land, where increasingly there was nothing to eat. In response to pleas for food aid, Stalin called the famine "one of the minor inconveniences of our system."

The famine peaked in the summer of 1933, with some 4 million Ukrainians dying of starvation. Another 1 million died in Kazakhstan, and a million more elsewhere, for a total death toll of 6 million.

Getting back to Duranty, he knew perfectly well what was going on, but none of this was reflected in his reporting. For example, in March 1933 he reported, "There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation." In August of that year, he said, "Any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda."

In a meeting with Duranty, another Western reporter asked him what he planned to write about the famine. "Nothing," Duranty replied. "What are a few million dead Russians in a situation like this? Quite unimportant."

In recent years, several books have documented the famine and Duranty's role in covering it up. This led to calls for the New York Times to renounce his Pulitzer Prize. In 2003, the Times commissioned Columbia University historian Mark von Hagen to study the matter. He recommended that the prize should be rescinded, a recommendation rejected by the Times' management on the grounds that the decision is not theirs to make, but rather belongs to the Pulitzer Board, which has also declined to take back Duranty's prize.

Perhaps if the Times had renounced Duranty's Pulitzer, some of its critics today might have been more willing to cut it some slack on the terrorist financing story.