Sig Gissler, the Pulitzer board’s administrator, said on Tuesday the 18-member group’s review “is intended to seriously consider all relevant information regarding Mr. Duranty’s award.”
The board in 1932 honored Duranty “for his series of dispatches on Russia, especially the working out of the Five Year Plan,” Stalin’s proposed economic system intended to boost production and improve citizens’ living standards.
Duranty had covered the Soviet Union for the Times from 1922 to 1941. He had previously earned critical acclaim for a 1929 interview with Stalin, whom Duranty once described as “the greatest living statesman.”
The board’s announcement follows a massive campaign launched in February by Ukrainians across the world to demand the posthumous withdrawal of Duranty’s prize.
Members of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America (UCCA) joined the international effort and bombarded the Pulitzer board with more than 15,000 postcards and thousands of letters and e-mails, urging the group to revoke Duranty’s honor, the UCCA said in a press statement on its Web site.
The campaign was timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the Ukraine’s Great Famine, which claimed at least seven million lives. The famine came as Stalin’s regime imposed a brutal agricultural quota system on a largely Ukrainian populace deemed resistant to communism.
The UCCA said Duranty “not only disregarded the famine-genocide in his dispatches but called other journalists outright liars” for reporting on the story.
Gissler said the board decided to review Duranty’s award in April — before most of the postcards and letters had arrived — but said the group’s comments would be taken seriously.
“Like any significant complaint, we take them seriously,” Gissler said Tuesday. “They are under review by a board subcommittee, and all aspects and ramifications will be considered.”
Gissler said that the Pulitzer board honored Duranty in 1932 for his stories from the previous year, which were unrelated to the famine.
The Pulitzer Prize recognizes the work during a single year rather than “a winner’s body of work over time,” Gissler added.
“There are no written procedures regarding prize revocation. There are no standards or precedents for revoking the prize. We look at what would be reasonable and analyze the factors that would have to be considered,” Gissler, a former editor of The Milwaukee Journal and professor at the Columbia School of Journalism, said.
Though the Times continues to list Duranty among its Pulitzer Prize-winners on its Web site, it cautions that “other writers in The Times and elsewhere have discredited this coverage.”
“The Times has reported often and thoroughly on the defects in Duranty’s journalism as viewed through the lens of later events,” Toby Usnik, director of public relations at The Times, told the Associated Press on Tuesday.
This is not the first time the Pulitzer board has reconsidered Duranty’s honor. In 1990, the board decided against withdrawing the prize, awarded “in a different era and under different circumstances.”
Scholars and other journalists have repeatedly questioned the objectivity and accuracy of Duranty’s work.
According to the 1990 book Stalin’s Apologist by S.J. Taylor, the British-born correspondent reported Communist Party propaganda rather than the facts of daily life in the Soviet Union. Taylor maintained that Duranty knew of the famine and other atrocities, but did not report on it to preserve his special access to Stalin.
Even as other foreign correspondents detailed the famine story, Duranty derided their work as “an exaggeration of malignant propaganda” in an August 1933 New York Times article.
Duranty acknowledged Stalin’s political methods could be brutal, but said that “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.”
At the same time, Duranty is recorded in 1933 as telling British Embassy officials that some 10 million Ukrainians had died during the famine.
Since the creation of the Pulitzer Prize in 1917, the board has never revoked an award.
In 1981, The Washington Post returned a Pulitzer awarded to Janet Cooke, a reporter who fabricated a story about an eight-year-old heroin addict.
Walter Duranty’s surviving relatives could not be reached for comment.