Monday, August 26, 2019

Walter Duranty, The New York Times, and Fake News

Up-front: This is not a pro-Trump article. It’s not an anti-media article. In fact, it’s a pro-journalism article, from someone who was originally trained in journalism and worked with reporters for almost his entire professional career.

Fake news didn’t begin with the 2016 presidential election.

I suspect it goes back to the Garden of Eden, when the serpent told Eve that she surely wouldn’t die if she ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 

Fake news is as old as humanity.

One of the most famous examples of fake news in modern American history involved a reporter for The New York Times named Walter Duranty. He was stationed in Moscow during the early years of Stalin’s rule. So was Malcolm Muggeridge, then a reporter for the Manchester Guardian

Muggeridge, without permission from the Soviet authorities, traveled to the Ukraine. He had heard reports of famine in the Soviet Union’s breadbasket, following the forced collectivization of the farms in 1930 and 1931. He indeed found famine, with whole families starving to death on a massive scale, and he reported on it (without his byline and in stories smuggled out via diplomatic pouch). 

Malcolm Muggeridge in 1929
Duranty of The New York Times looked into it as well. He was also given unprecedented access to Stalin himself. Duranty found a few deaths from “malnutrition” but no famine. He explained the famine reports as a diplomatic duel between Great Britain and the Soviet Union. A few months later, he said that any reports of famine in Russia were “an exaggeration or malignant propaganda.” A few years later, he defended Stalin’s Show Trials of 1938.

Duranty’s reporting on the Ukraine won a Pulitzer Prize.

To be fair, Duranty was not alone in his apologetics work for the Soviet Union. Lots of reporters were right there as well. It was the Great Depression of the 1930s, and to many (including many reporters), it appeared that capitalism had failed and communism was the future.

Duranty’s report turned out to be fake news, or “propaganda masquerading as news.” There was horrible famine in the Ukraine, and Stalin’s policies had destroyed one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world. Millions of people died. Muggeridge’s reporting had been exactly right.

Sixty years later, The New York Times acknowledged the bad reporting. Despite calls to revoke Duranty’s Pulitzer Prize posthumously (he died in 1957), the Pulitzer board decided to let the award stand. 

Now as then, fake news knows no political or intellectual boundaries. It’s the report of a pizza parlor covering as a front for pedophiles, the “fine people” hoax of Charlottesville, and the Covington boys allegedly ridiculing an elderly native American. Uninformed people fell for the pizza parlor trick; smart, intelligent, and informed people fell for the Charlottesville hoax and the slanted video that featured the Covington boys. Unfortunately, a number of those people were reporters, editors, news anchors, and others holding significant national media positions.

I knew something had gone seriously wrong with the news media long before the 2016 election. But in December of 2016, the latest iteration began. The Washington Post published a story, quoting an anonymous (Obama) administration source, that the Russians had hacked the U.S. electric grid. This was collateral evidence that the Russians had supposedly hacked the election to make sure Donald Trump won. 

Walter Duranty
As it turned out, the Russians had not hacked the electric grid. A utility worker’s laptop not connected to the grid had possibly been compromised via a Russian porn site. The original story had made all the public rounds. No one noticed how the Post gradually edited the story and the headline, dialing back the original sensational account. No one wondered why the reporter hadn’t even bothered to check with the utility, and only began to make changes to the story when the utility issued a press release clarifying the news report. The original report had been republished, tweeted, and shared countless times. The edited version wasn’t. 

Consider the implications of a company’s press release being more truthful and accurate than an article in the Washington Post.

The essential truthfulness of Russian collusion was accepted by virtually all of the major national news media and most of the rest of the media as well. Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller was expected to uncover all of the evidence that would lead to President Trump’s impeachment and removal from office. 

Constantly buttressed by stories quoting anonymous sources, that was the media narrative we all read, watched, and heard for more than two years. That Trump constantly attacked the news media and “fake news” on Twitter and in press briefings added to the emotion powering the narrative. Trump had become an existential threat to freedom of the press.

Unfortunately, so had, and has, the behavior of the news media. Huge swaths of the American public do not trust the news that’s printed and broadcast. Cartoonist Scott Adams has gone so far as to say that national news media today are “just a manipulation tool for people with agendas.”

The narrative turned out to be wrong. Or, put another way, the narrative turned out to be wrongheaded. It’s now pointing in the opposite direction, although the media seem reluctant to go there. Instead, there’s been a media pivot from collusion to obstruction (“Trump would have been charged with obstruction were he not president, former prosecutors assert” – Washington Post, May 6, 2019).

In 2017, The New York Times and Washington Post shared a Pulitzer Prize for their efforts to uncover collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. 

The ghost of Walter Duranty walks. The media can’t wait 60 years to acknowledge the mistake they’ve made.


No comments: