The Times and Its Errors (and Ours)

(Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

In response to the newspaper’s “1619 Project,” Peter Kirsanow takes the New York Times to task for Walter Duranty’s coverage of the USSR and the famine that killed millions in Ukraine. “Maybe it should devote a tiny portion of its 1619 Project resources to reframing its history of the Ukrainian famine. . . . The New York Times would do well to correct its own profound mistakes and biases before rewriting history to suit its ideological imperatives.”

Duranty’s work was indeed dreadful. As one critical account put it:

Taking Soviet propaganda at face value this way was completely misleading, as talking with ordinary Russians might have revealed even at the time. Duranty’s prize-winning articles quoted not a single one – only Stalin, who forced farmers all over the Soviet Union into collective farms and sent those who resisted to concentration camps. Collectivization was the main cause of a famine that killed millions of people in Ukraine, the Soviet breadbasket.

That is a statement from the New York Times itself. Another account from the Times:

On Christmas Day in 1933, Joseph Stalin conferred this orchid on his favorite Western journalist:

“You have done a good job in your reporting the U.S.S.R., though you are not a Marxist, because you try to tell the truth about our country . . . I might say that you bet on our horse to win when others thought it had no chance and I am sure you have not lost by it.”

The reporter was Walter Duranty, then The New York Times’s Moscow correspondent, who is credited with coining the term “Stalinism.” He was fascinated, almost mesmerized by the harsh system he described. And having bet on Stalin’s rise in the 1920’s, Mr. Duranty remained loyally partial to his horse. The result was some of the worst reporting to appear in this newspaper.

The Pulitzer Committee, which has its own problems, has declined to revoke the prize on the grounds that Duranty’s reporting was incompetent and sloppy but not willfully deceptive. The Times says it has no Duranty prize in its possession to give back (or, I suppose, ritually burn). It is fair to say that the paper should do more on that front, e.g., that it should not count this Pulitzer among its total when it brags about that sort of thing. But the Times has to its credit publicly acknowledged its error and the bias that led to it. To claim otherwise is inconsistent with the facts and unfair to the efforts that the Times has made, however delayed or deficient, to correct the record.

There are things that have been published in the pages of National Review over the years that we regret, for good reason. I do not think that there are very many publications that have been around for very long that do not have similar regrets.

Not that the Times is a great exemplar of that spirit. On Wednesday, it published a piece by James Poniewozik, who is inconsolable over the fact that Donald Trump’s former press secretary is to appear on “Dancing with the Stars.” He offers a mock confession: “It isn’t cool to get mad about things like this. It’s so strident. It’s so earnest. If you high-mindedly wrestle with a goofy sideshow like ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ you just get glitter all over you, and the show gets ratings.” But the problem with Poniewozik’s sentiment is not that it is strident or earnest, still less that it is high-minded — it is that it is petty and vindictive. It is in the spirit of Joaquin Castro, who wishes to ruin the businesses and families of San Antonio residents — his constituents — for the sin of having made donations to the presidential candidate of the other party. There are times when social pressure of that sort is appropriate, but this is not the Montgomery bus boycott — it’s a congressman going after people for simply making campaign donations to the presidential nominee of one of the two major parties. I myself would not be inclined to make such a donation, but the congressman’s reaction is disproportionate, petty, vindictive, and hysterical.

We could use a good deal less of that, I think. There is plenty to criticize in the New York Times, especially in its coverage of national political affairs. But using its mistakes from the Thirties as a cudgel—to pretend that they discredit the institution in toto, now and forever — may not be the best example for any of us to set. I do not think that National Review’s wrongheadedness in the 1950s is the entirety of this magazine’s legacy or of Bill Buckley’s. I don’t think that anything similar is true of The New Republic or the CBS Evening News or the New York Times.

Devin Gordon, writing in The Atlantic, shows the shallowness of this spirit, taking Joe Rogan to task for having the independence of mind to interview people that people like Devin Gordon believe should be and have been cast into the outer dark. On Rogan, Gordon laments

his insistence on seeing value in people even when he shouldn’t, even when they’ve forfeited any right to it, even when the harm outweighs the good. It comes from a generous place, but it amounts to careless cruelty. He just won’t write people off, and then he compounds the sin by throwing them a lifeline at the moment when they least deserve it.

Who are these miscreants? Milo Yiannapoulos, Alex Jones, etc. Not Slobodan Milošević — Milo and Alex Jones. Gordon wonders why it is that Rogan is so popular. That this mystifies him so is both hilarious and instructive. Joe Rogan, whatever his other qualities, is interested in the world; Devin Gordon is interested in Twitter pettiness. And, as it turns out, the world is more interesting than Devin Gordon’s baroque rules of etiquette and his secondhand vendettas.

Perhaps there is a lesson in there for all of us. I’ve probably written 30 Walter Duranty jokes. That probably wasn’t the best use of my time.

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