Double Standard: Errant reporters punished; media’s mistakes ignored

December 1, 2003

The board that runs the Pulitzer Prize has decided, after seven months of reflection, that it won’t revoke the 1932 award of Walter Duranty, the New York Times Moscow correspondent whose pre-war coverage of Josef Stalin was a great deal kinder than history has been.

Duranty has long been under attack by Ukrainian Americans for multiple sins during his 19 years as the most influential U.S. journalist in the Soviet Union. Among the news that he either missed because he was inept, or downplayed because he was corrupt, was the calamitous 1932 Ukraine famine (a consequence of Stalin’s forced collectivizations), which was taking shape in the same year as his prize-winning stories. About five million people died.

Duranty’s critics question whether a reporter who misreported events of that magnitude, and can be described as blinkered at best, deserved U.S. journalism’s top prize, awarded for “a profound and intimate comprehension of conditions in Russia.”

Apparently he does. The Times commissioned an evaluation from Columbia University historian Mark von Hagen, who found a “lack of balance and uncritical acceptance of the Soviet self-justification for its cruel and wasteful regime.”

Still, The Times urged the board to leave Duranty’s prize alone. The board did, reasoning that without evidence of deliberate deception it had no grounds for revocation, even though Duranty’s work fell short of ”today’s standards” for foreign reporting (as if telling the truth is a task journalists have taken up only recently.)

It’s revealing to contrast The Times’ defense of Duranty’s Pulitzer with The Washington Post’s immediate decision to return the same prize that its reporter Janet Cooke won in 1982 for a made-up story about a young junkie.

Why the difference?

When it comes to media accountability, there has long been a double standard. News outfits fall all over themselves to own up to relatively minor wrongdoing by employees, like Cooke. But big mistakes, the kind that call into question the judgment, bias, intellectual timidity and overall wisdom of the organizations themselves — uh, not so fast.

Hence all the contrition over Jayson Blair, the Times reporter fired last spring for making up details in stories that didn’t matter, and over Stephen Glass, the New Republic writer who is the subject of a movie about the inconsequential fictions that he passed off as inconsequential journalism.

That stuff is easy. After all, these guys lied. Plus, hanging them out to dry enables publishers to take the position that integrity is an attribute of individual journalists, which it sometimes is. But real integrity is also a function of the way organizations operate.

And we get so little about the media’s big sins. Take the ’80s-era spasm of hysterical coverage about satanic rituals supposedly sweeping U.S. child-care centers. A blaze of prosecutions followed, fueled by a cottage industry of psycho-experts in suppressed-memory disorders, who coached toddlers into gruesome recollections. Was any of it true? Has any of that lunacy been reexamined?

No, because major errors fall outside the bounds of the chicken-feed corrections that newspapers run. Just as they don’t cop to missing the run-up to the collapse of the Soviet Union, which surprised the media as much as it shocked the American public. Or the rise of the Islamic fundamentalism that has become this country’s greatest international threat, and which media began reporting in earnest only after the Twin Towers fell on 9/11.

And while The Times pillories Blair for fabrications that didn’t matter, it says nothing about its fierce reporting on Saddam Hussein’s biological and chemical weapons, which mattered a lot, because it gave intellectual justification for a war.

Duranty was a disgrace, and he deserves a Pulitzer no more than a reporter who praised Hitler’s architecture or Pol Pot’s love of Mozart. The media can hardly earn public respect when they insist on their right to be not only wrong but beyond reproach.

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