Walter Duranty was a glib, fun-loving playboy who regularly smoked opium for the “novelty of vision” it provided. He said his chief aim in life was to write consequential fiction, and that he achieved through journalism as Moscow bureau chief for the New York Times. He witnessed and privately acknowledged Stalin’s state-induced famine of the 1930’s with people dying from starvation – a particularly hideous form of death – at the rate of 25 thousand a day. But he reported in the Times there was only some “malnutrition” in the region.
There followed the massive purge of Stalin’s fellow communists and others who had obstructed his quest for absolute power. Duranty attended the contrived show trials with the obviously coerced confessions of the ragged prisoners in the dock. But he insisted they were all true. How could you not believe the Great Father? He airily dismissed any accounts that contradicted him as the work of unseasoned amateurs, definitely beneath him. To prove the point, he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for what can only be called a decade of lies.
Yet Duranty was not a spy or a communist or even an ideologue. He could have easily passed a security screening or even a polygraph. He captivated people with his endless, witty chatter, occasionally with a flourish of his wooden leg, resulting from a train accident. He was always the center of attention in Moscow and elsewhere – just like Stalin. He ruled in a small pond while the man he most admired was master of a vast one. Stalin was sheer brute force, he explained, but that was needed to overcome the benighted “Russian soul,” immersed in ignorance. When commands don’t work, whips will do. He liked to say, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” These words serve as a finale for a new film about Duranty and a reporter who got the story right, “Mr. Jones.”
There was, to be sure, an element of society that welcomed his words. Communism had a much better press than Nazism, and when Stalin and Hitler split Poland to start the Second World War, most animosity was directed at Hitler. But it was one thing to welcome Stalin as an ally whose Russia eventually did the most and suffered the most to win the war; it was quite another to overlook his menacing ambitions. At the end of the war his troops overran and took control of the rest of Poland, all of Eastern Europe and a large chunk of Germany until the West came to its senses and called a halt, commencing the Cold War.
Duranty never seemed to regret his errors even when they had been clearly exposed. After all, he had achieved his goal becoming the most celebrated journalist of his time. No denying that. The New York Times eventually offered an apology for his work, as it did subsequently for its unstinting support of the false premises leading to the 2003 U.S war in Iraq. Walter Duranty remains an enduring lesson for journalists.