The New York Times, which has had serious credibility problems of late and which has begun trying to remedy them, may have overstepped its bounds in the process. In first commissioning and then endorsing a negative Columbia University report on one of its former Pulitzer Prize winners, the Times has not so much repaired its integrity as damaged it further.
In joining with Columbia professor Mark Von Hagen in seeking to have the late Walter Duranty's 1932 prize rescinded, the Times has undermined the historical process and embraced something close to Soviet-style revisionism. This is first-class irony, since the reason Von Hagen and the Times cite in asking the Pulitzer committee to revoke Duranty's prize is that the erstwhile Times correspondent was too slavishly accepting of the gospel according to then-dictator Joseph Stalin.
Maybe Duranty was a credulous dupe in reporting Stalin's party line as fact. Or maybe just a simple dope. He was awarded the prize at a time when the Soviet Union was still more or less isolated from the world community and in-depth reporting of any kind from Stalin's cloistered empire was a rarity. The Duranty articles on which the prize was based were written in 1931, not in the 1932-33 period of a Ukrainian famine that resulted from punitive and agriculturally stupid Stalinist policies. This is a key point, since much of the subsequent animus accorded Duranty had to do with his purported blindness in reporting on the famine -- or on what many alleged to be his virtual complicity with the regime in covering it up.
None of this can be charged against the prize-winning articles, however. In his report, Von Hagen -- making what we presume to be his best case -- called Duranty's 1931 pieces "very effective renditions of the Stalinist leadership's style of self-understanding of their murderous and progressive project." He heaps further damnation by judging that Duranty's reporting was "neither unique among reporters" nor "particularly unusual, let alone profound."
Sorry. If that's the best that Von Hagen and the current heads of the Times -- who endorsed the report and washed their hands of Duranty -- can do, our judgment is against the judges, not the deceased and defamed reporter. There is only a difference of degree between this sort of un-personing and the kind made infamous by Stalin himself, whose regime, in the light of a ruthless Realpolitik, rescinded not only reputations but people themselves, expunging all traces of their deeds and identities and consigning these onetime favorites to gulags or to execution chambers.
Nothing is clearer than the fact that political fashions -- and aesthetic standards, for that matter -- change with the evolving whims of time. To take another flagrant recent example -- the decision by CBS to cut and run on its expensively produced docudrama about the Reagans -- we are clearly in a period in which even mild criticism of figures on the political right is not to be countenanced. Though the now-disowned production apparently featured some of the more prominent warts on the personalities of Ron and Nancy, it was largely reverential of the former first family, according to the aforesaid New York Times, which nevertheless delivered itself recently of something of an apologia for the censors. (Obviously, the paper is on a roll!)
Plagiarists and rip-off artists are not the only blemishes that the Times and the Fourth Estate in general need concern themselves with. Besides the errant Jayson Blairs or Rick Braggs or Walter Durantys, for that matter, the media need to be mindful of misdeeds committed in the name of respectability. The eraser end of the pencil can offend quite as much as the writing end.