On Native Ground
WHEN JOURNALISTS TRADE TRUTH FOR ACCESS
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. - Before there was Jayson Blair, there was Walter Duranty.
While The New York Times has been justly embarrassed by its belated discovery this year that Blair made up many of his news stories, the work of Duranty - its Moscow correspondent during the 1920s and 1930s - remains the biggest embarrassment in the Times' history.
Duranty won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his reporting from the Soviet Union - reporting that covered up the many abuses of Josef Stalin's regime, including the man-made famine in Ukraine that killed as many as 10 million in 1932 and 1933.
Because Duranty's reporting was, in the words of Columbia University history professor Mark von Hagen, a "dull and largely uncritical recitation of Soviet sources," Duranty was rarely hassled by the Soviet government. He did his work unimpeded while other journalists were expelled for telling the truth about the Ukrainian genocide.
Conservatives have flogged the Duranty case for decades and have long tried to get the Pulitzer Prize Board to revoke his award. The Times has for the most part disavowed Duranty's work, although it still counts his Pulitzer along with the 88 others that the paper has won over the years. But in light of the damage done to the Times' reputation by the Blair scandal and the increasing pressure on the Pulitzer Board to address the Duranty case, the Times conducted its own investigation.
The result was the recommendation by von Hagen that Duranty's award should be rescinded because of his "lack of balance and uncritical acceptance of the Soviet self-justification for its cruel and wasteful regime."
Duranty's sins are well-documented and he deserves to be considered as one of its prime scoundrels in the history of journalism. But von Hagen's charges against Duranty - "a dull and largely uncritical recitation of Soviet sources" that showed a "lack of balance and uncritical acceptance" of the official line - could just as easily be applied to the people who have to cover President Bush every day.
Can anyone honestly say that the President has gotten the hard-edged coverage that President Clinton got? The answer is no.
We know the answer why. It's easier to talk about a president's penis than it is to talk about a president's policies. President Bush may have lied to the country about the need to invade Iraq, but by golly, he has kept his pants zipped up and hasn't gotten sexual favors from interns.
But the relatively gentle treatment of President Bush goes beyond matters of character or political bias. It comes down to one thing - access.
The Washington press corps goes along with the pronouncements of the Bush administration for the same reason Duranty went along with the pronouncements of Stalin's regime - to maintain access to their news sources.
The Bush administration is as ruthless and disciplined when it comes to dealing with the press as Stalin was. And when a reporter displeases the White House, that reporter will quickly find himself on the outs. Who wants to rock the boat and jeopardize a nice high-paying job like covering the White House and lose out on those appearances on the Sunday talk shows? Better to shut up and go along.
Is it any wonder that the sharpest, most tightly reasoned criticism of President Bush comes from Paul Krugman, the Princeton economics professor who writes a twice-weekly column for the Times? He can write truthfully about the Bush regime because he's not stuck in the White House playing the ridiculous game that reporters have to play to keep what's still regarded as the most prestigious gig in American journalism.
"The vocabulary Krugman applied to the President bristled with words such as 'dishonesty,' 'lying,' 'mendacity,' and 'fraud,'" wrote Russell Baker in a review of a new collection of Krugman's work, "The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century," that appeared in the Nov. 6 issue of The New York Review of Books. "Among political pundits, such language verges on the taboo. As a class, political columnists do not shrink from the occasional well poisoning, but on matters of etiquette they are conservative to the verge of stuffiness, and they tend to view plain speech as the mark of the ill-mannered bumpkin."
Few Washington journalists want to admit that the emperor is as naked as the proverbial jaybird. Sure, people like Krugman, Michael Moore, Molly Ivins, Jim Hightower, David Corn, Greg Palast and Al Franken - all of whom have best-selling books that tear apart the Bush agenda - are loudly yelling "No clothes!" But these people are on the fringe of the debate writing books for the people who either already know the arguments or have enough intellectual curiosity to find out more about them.
The people who most need to know about why the Bush administration has been one of the most ruinous calamities that has ever happened to America aren't hearing about it. They aren't hearing about it because they get their information from the corporate press. Most of the daily print and broadcast media isn't interested in saying the President is a liar and a fraud unless it is absolutely politically and economically safe to do.
That's the danger of access. It seduces a reporter into thinking he is important and part of the political process. Soon, you lose your ability to be objective and start viewing everything through the eyes of the people you cover. The result is that the public loses out on the information they need to know.
Would it have made a difference if Walter Duranty wrote truthfully about Stalin and the Ukrainian famine he engineered? We don't know, anymore than we know for sure whether truthful reporting about the ever-shifting rationales for invading Iraq could've prevented the mess we find ourselves in now. But truthfulness is better than mendacity and the public is better served when its press tells the truth.
Randolph T. Holhut was a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.