Mendacity Writ Large

Walter Duranty, the Pulitzer and 'truthiness'

When Comedy Central mock pundit Stephen Colbert coined a word to connote a sense of verity for topics completely unverifiable, the term “truthiness” quickly entered the lexicon. Never mind those inconvenient and uncomfortable facts, Colbert comically winked, the faint whisper of truth is enough if it confirms a person’s ideological bias.

This, for better or worse, has become more and more the case as talking heads hammer home their respective biases in the broadcast and print marketplace of ideas — but this condition even predates the quote attributed to editor William Randolph Hearst preceding the Spanish American War: “You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.” Journalists, in other words, should be taken with more than a grain of salt until their dedication to objectivity is established firmly.

One means of boasting journalistic credibility is earning a Pulitzer Prize, the nation’s highest professional honor for ink-stained wretches. Over the years, the award has been granted to extremely deserving reporters. But the Pulitzer’s reputation will be forever sullied by the 1932 award granted The New York Times’ scribe Walter Duranty, a man for whom applying the term mendacious is the equivalent of calling Joseph Stalin merely dyspeptic.

Duranty’s deceitful reporting from Moscow during Stalin’s disastrous Five Year Plan is the framing story of the two-act play “The Party Line” by Roger L. Simon and Sheryl Longin, the inaugural title published by Criterion Books. The play — as well the introduction by Ronald Radosh, professor emeritus at New York University — revisits what has been revealed as the biggest journalism con-job of the 20th century, which is Duranty’s deliberate cover-up of the Ukrainian famines perpetrated by Stalin that resulted in millions of Soviet citizens dying of starvation.

In the 1930s, while the average Soviet citizen scrambled for crumbs when not stacked like cord wood in tiny apartments occupied by multiple families, Duranty lived in comparative luxury in spacious rooms with his Russian mistress and the couple’s child, enjoyed a Soviet-appointed chauffeur who tootled the journalist around Moscow in an imported Buick and had access to his own private telephone.

This high-falutin lifestyle was afforded by adopting “the party line” of the play’s title. “Pay no attention to that despot behind the curtain,” Duranty figuratively told his readers. “Uncle Joe’s a standup guy.” In addition to misreporting intentionally the Ukraine famines, Radosh reminds readers that Duranty also was an apologist for Stalin’s show trials later on in the decade that claimed the lives of the Trotskyites and Menshaviks who had been instrumental in the Bolshevik Revolution that brought first Lenin and then Stalin to power initially.

Of course, Simon and Longin recognize that the America of the era was fertile with intellectual gullibility. Returning to the United States in 1933, Duranty was feted at New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria, bringing 1,500 political guests and equally misinformed business leaders to their feet to applaud the journalistic fraud.

This historical event is dramatized effectively by the play’s wholly fictional Sid Brody, a disillusioned UPI journalist who characterizes the willingly duped cognoscenti as “a phenomenon right here in Manhattan I call ‘Penthouse Bolsheviks.’… It’s about all the millionaires and beautiful people, literati and artistes, would-be and otherwise, who hang out at ritzy Manhattan dinner parties insisting socialism is the answer, when the real citizens of the Soviet Union spend their lives freezing in Siberian labor camps … unless they’ve died of starvation first.”

This reviewer is reminded of a scene in “Che,” Steven Soderbergh’s hagiographic film about the butcher of Fidel Castro’s 1959 overthrow of the Batista regime wherein Ernesto “Che” Guevara attends a cocktail party in, you guessed it, Manhattan. Glamorous females throw themselves at the reticent “rock star” guerilla and pointy-headed, bespectacled Bohemian intellectuals flatter their fragile egos while basking in the reflected “glory” of the handsome and bloodthirsty terrorist.

Brody continues: “It’s morally reprehensible…. Stalin’s not a hero of the working classes. He’s a dictator, a torturer and a mass murderer. You don’t believe me? Ever been inside the bowels of Lubyanka Prison? Ever see peasants starving by the side of the road in the Caucuses with their stomachs distended, fighting over scraps of squirrel meat covered with flies? Ever been to a forced labor camp in the Gulag where people are beaten with birch branches until their skin turns inside out and their bones shatter into little white bits like broken clam shells on a beach?”

Longin and Simon contrast the Duranty storyline with a parallel story that places Duranty’s son in a romantic relationship with Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, who was assassinated in 2002. The juxtaposition of the two stories makes no attempt to equate Soviet totalitarianism with radical Islam (outspoken opposition to which prompted Fortuyn’s murder by Volkert van der Graaf) — but the authors make a good case against journalists who are too eager to ignore facts when reporting their stories.

In addition to Duranty and Fortuyn, several other real-life characters populate the play, including Soviet press commissar Konstantin Oumansky, film director Cecil B. DeMille and the purveyor of “dark magick” Aleister Crowley. These last two characters perhaps thicken the stew without adding much flavor — other than adding further glimpses of Duranty’s opportunism and inflated ego.

What may be the biggest takeaway from “The Party Line” is that readers or viewers of any single “news” source should take it upon themselves to do their own fact checking. And once that fact checking is performed, it may become necessary to check the credibility of such fact-checking websites as Snopes.com.

Not to sound excessively paranoid, but one should never underestimate the will of ideologues in the journalism profession to intentionally deceive their audience. A famous case in point would be former CBS correspondent Dan Rather’s assertion in 2004 that forged documents revealed the true nature of former President George W. Bush’s military record — an allegation Rather continues to make to this day with the assistance of such media “useful idiots” (to borrow a phrase from Stalin) as Bill Maher.

“The truth,” Fox Mulder of the “X-Files” famously intoned, “is out there.” Precisely where, however, increasingly remains to be seen. Truthiness may be an adequate standard for Colbert, but hardly sets the bar for a Pulitzer Prize.