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Day | 24Apr2012 | Viktoria Skuba

The Pulitzer Prize and the good name

Awarding a journalist from The New York Times for highlighting the topic of hunger in Africa, the committee still refuses to revoke the prize for Walter Duranty who deliberately perverted the information on the Holodomor in Ukraine

The winners of the Pulitzer Prize 2012 have been recently announced. The 100,000 cash prizes will be awarded to the winners on May 7, 2012 in New York.

The Pulitzer Award is one of the most prestigious in the sphere of journalism. The reason is not about the sum of the cash prize, which is quite modest. The award founded by Hungarian-born American journalist Joseph Pulitzer conveys a tremendous honor to the winners. It has been given since 1917 for the achievements made in drama, literature, music, and journalism.

This year the list of the winners show an explicit social emphasis. The award has been given to journalists or periodicals, whose publications have helped prevent violence, expose corruption deeds or abuse of office. For example, in the category “Public Service,” the award went to The Philadelphia Inquirer. The periodical received the prize for a number of publications about the violence in the city schools, where the deeds of violence were committed by children against children. These publications have helped to implement the reforms aimed at increasing the safety of teachers and schoolchildren.

The prize for the best investigative reporting went to reporters from the Associated Press and The Seattle Times. AP journalists made reports about the New York police, whose employees within the framework of combating terrorism led a secret surveillance over the city’s Muslim community, and The Seattle Times reporters wrote a series of articles about the treatment of gravely diseased patients with Methadone (synthetic opioid) in the State of Washington.

In the category “Breaking News Reporting” the award went to The Tuscaloosa News from Alabama for the publications highlighting the aftermaths of the disastrous tornado. The actions of the periodical’s editors who used along with traditional sources the possibilities of social networks, helped to find the missing people.

Explanatory Reporting Award went to David Kocieniewski from The New York Times for a series of reports on how big corporations and businessmen use the flaws of legislation to avoid paying taxes.

The Breaking News Photography award went to Massoud Hossaini, a photojournalist from Agence France-Presse, for his shot of a girl, who survived the Kabul act of terrorism. The agency received the award for the first time in the entire history of the Pulitzer Prize.

Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times won recognition in the International Reporting Category for his coverage of the armed conflicts and famine in the countries of Eastern Africa.

Interestingly, the Pulitzer Prize has already been given to a New York Times contributor for highlighting the topic of famine, that time in Ukraine. That journalist was Walter Duranty who denied the mass deaths caused by famine in 1932-33 on Ukrainian territory. Actually, Duranty’s award is a stain on the good name of the Pulitzer Prize.

“Walter Duranty, born in Liverpool (England) in 1884, was always something of a scoundrel and openly relished in being able to get away with it… in 1921 was among the first foreign reporters allowed into the Soviet Union,” the noted researcher of the Holodomor James Mace writes in his “Tale of Two Journalists.” Actually, Duranty took the leading part in the Soviet Union’s information campaign against the British journalist Gareth Jones who after covering 40 miles across the starving villages of Ukraine was one of the first to tell the world press about the Holodomor.

“By the early spring of 1933, the fact that famine was raging in Ukraine and the Kuban, two-thirds of the population of which happened to be Ukrainian, was common knowledge in Moscow among foreign diplomats, foreign correspondents, and even the man in the street. …a ban had imposed in foreign journalists traveling to the areas in question. Upon checking with his colleagues in Moscow what they knew -- on the understanding, of course, that their names would never be mentioned -- Jones decided it was worth it to defy the prohibition and buy a ticket at the train station to the places affected as a private person, which was not forbidden. Once there, he employed his simple but logical method of getting off the train and walking for several hours until he was certain he was off the beaten track and start talking to the local. He spent a couple of weeks, walked about 40 miles, talked to people, slept in their huts, and was appalled at what he saw. Rushing back to Moscow and out of the Soviet Union, Jones stopped off first in Berlin, where he gave a press conference and fired off a score of articles about the tragedy he had seen firsthand. ‘I walked alone through villages and twelve collective farms. Everywhere was the cry, ‘There is no bread; we are dying.’ (Manchester Guardian, March 30, 1933),” James Mace writes in the abovementioned “Tale of Two Journalists.”

Mouthed by “the confidant of prime ministers and millionaires, a young man who was able to get interviews with Hitler and Mussolini,” this statement sounded threatening even for the Soviet authorities. At least, it could not be left ignored. That was the time the mass campaign against Gareth Jones started, where Walter Duranty played one of the most significant roles.

On March 31, 1933, The New York Times carried the publication “Russians Hungry, But Not Starving,” where Duranty writes: “The novelty and mismanagement of collective farming, plus the quite efficient conspiracy of Feodor M. Konar and his associates in agricultural commissariats, have made a mess of Soviet food production. [Konar was executed for sabotage.]… There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation… These conditions are bad, but there is no famine. …If through climatic conditions, as in 1921, the crop fails, then, indeed, Russia will be menaced by famine. If not, the present difficulties will be speedily forgotten.”

However, the zest of the situation is in the fact that the journalist was not simply mistaken, he deliberately wrote the lie. In private conversations Duranty quite openly recognized the Holodomor. “On September 26, 1933 in a private conversation with William Strang of the British Embassy in Moscow, he stated, ‘it is quite possible that as many as ten million people may have died directly or indirectly from lack of food in the Soviet Union during the past year.’” Malcolm Muggeridge, a young English socialist, said about him, “There was something vigorous, vivacious, preposterous, about his unscrupulousness which made his persistent lying somehow absorbing.” Therefore the fact that Walter Duranty’s name still remains on the list of the Pulitzer Prize winners casts shade on its good name. Of course, any jury can make a mistake. But here the question is not about a regrettable mistake. In the 80 years that have passed since the time when the award was conferred on Duranty, first, Gareth Jones’ niece Margaret Siriol Colley, later, Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association in cooperation with Ukrainian organizations from the whole world, demanded from the Pulitzer Prize Committee a revocation of the prize. Actually, the international campaign under the slogan “Make justice” has been underway since 2003, and Den/The Day has joined it. In 2003 we sent a letter to the members of the Pulitzer Prize Committee and The New York Times editors on behalf of our editorial board, in which we expressed our attitude to Duranty’s activity and demanded to revoke the prize. Unfortunately, our letter remained unanswered. Eventually, we have not received any answer yet. And this is surprising. According to the prize regulations, cancelling the prize may not be allowed, but one can always acknowledge the mistake and, so to say, redeem a doubtful situation in the prize history. Why is the prize committee not ready to do that?

This situation is an example of the West’s deafness to uncomfortable topics. Telling about the famine in Africa won’t expose you to trouble, whereas the recognition of the Holodomor in Ukraine, like in the early 20th century, still remains an unthankful cause. However, at this position a moral imbalance emerges, for the Pulitzer Prize is supposed to defend the high standards of journalism, to which the West has been persistently appealing. And nobody has eliminated morals from the list of these standards.

However, history has been witness to other cases, when the West gave up moral principles for the sake of political interests. Katyn is among the brightest ones. When during the World War II a crime of the Stalinist system against Polish POWs was exposed, both British, and American high-ranking officials ignored it. For example, Winston Churchill described the report of the British ambassador to the Polish government “a little too well-written,” because keeping good relations with Stalin was more important at that time. And in the letter to Stalin the British premier wrote that he was studying the possibility to hush the Polish newspapers in Great Britain, which attack the Soviet government. The Western “free press” kept silence, too. As a result it has taken the Poles almost 50 years of united efforts to make the official Western world recognize the truth about Katyn. Ukraine cannot boast of such unity so far, that is the reason why Walter Duranty still remains on the list of the Pulitzer Prize winners. For how longer will it remain so?