John Leo   Columbia Journalism Review   Jan/Feb 1999   The biggest liar I ever met
British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge said Duranty was "the biggest liar of any journalist I ever met."
Below are three excerpts from a Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) article by John Leo: (1) the heading material, (2) an excerpt on the topic of the Ukrainian Induced Famine or Holodomor of 1932-33, and (3) the concluding sentences.  The whole of the article can be found at:  http://www.cjr.org/year/99/1/bloopers.asp    Clicking on the CJR logo below will take you to the Columbia Journalism Review Archive page.

External link to the Columbia Journalism Review Archive

Columbia Journalism Review

January/February 1999

Bloopers of the Century
Blunders, hoaxes, goofs, flubs, boo-boos, screw-ups, fakes

by John Leo
Leo is a syndicated columnist and a contributing editor of U.S. News & World Report.

Garbled accident reports are hardly the worst reportorial sins.  The worst always involve getting it wrong on purpose.  The name of Walter Duranty comes up quickly.  Duranty covered the Soviet Union for The New York Times in the Stalin era.  He is perhaps the only Pulitzer winner that The Paper of Record would fervently like to forget.

At first a critic of the Soviet Union, Duranty soon evolved into an enthusiastic supporter and state-of-the-art propagandist.  One of his favorite comments was, "I put my money on Stalin."  When friends asked about Stalin's tactics, Duranty liked to say "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs."  Not that he noticed many broken eggs in Russia.  When Stalin engineered massive famine in the Ukraine to help break resistance to Soviet control, Duranty told Times readers that "any report of a famine in Russia today is an exaggeration or malignant propaganda."  In 1933, at the height of the famine, he wrote of abundant grain, plump babies, fat calves, and "village markets flowing with eggs, fruit, poultry, vegetables, milk, and butter at prices far lower than in Moscow."  He added that "a child can see this is not famine but abundance."

In fact, the death toll was enormous and Duranty knew it.  He told colleagues privately it was in the range of 10 million.  British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge said Duranty was "the biggest liar of any journalist I ever met."  But the Pulitzer committee praised Duranty's reports for their "scholarship, profundity, impartiality, sound judgment, and clarity."  Four errors, arguably five, in a single phrase.

Eventually, Duranty's Soviet coverage provoked debate among his editors and readers.  To its credit, the Times editorial page challenged his accounts.  But in the genteel journalistic world of that era, his reporting was never odious enough to get him recalled or fired.  The embarrassing Pulitzer has never been withdrawn or returned.

In these scandals, editors had plenty of time to reassess or spike bad stories.  That's a luxury the profession will have less of in the twenty-first century.  In an age of high-speed journalism, the risks are greater and the decisions had better be sharper.