Fudging the news

J. Arch Getty

  • Stalin’s Apologist. Walter Duranty: The ‘New York Times’ Man in Moscow by S.J. Taylor
    Oxford, 404 pp, £15.00, August 1990, ISBN 0 19 505700 7

In the days before electronic media were able instantly to place each of us in any part of the world, foreign correspondents were our link with current events. We found out about wars, revolutions, floods and famines by reading the work of these colourful characters who, with their trenchcoats, typewriters and suitcases, moved from capital to capital sniffing out the news. Writers like H. R. Knickerbocker, Malcolm Muggeridge, Eugene Lyons, John Gunther and Walter Duranty were our eyes and cars in the world. The milieux in which these men functioned in the Twenties and Thirties were turbulent and romantic. Moving constantly between Paris, Berlin and Moscow, they knew each other; they frequented the same salons, bars, restaurants and press offices and moved through settings ranging from the bohemian to the formal and diplomatic. Often living out of suitcases in assorted hotels, they passed with apparent ease in and out of circles of opium-smokers, political conspirators, avant-garde artists and government officials.

Their romantic lives coloured their writing, and they wrote very well; but that didn’t make them experts on the countries they covered. Then as now, media correspondents were given overseas assignments regardless of whether they knew anything about the country to which they were posted. Often lacking knowledge of the country’s language, let alone its culture, reporters were little more than talented gossip-collectors who hung around embassy and government press offices or simply listened to the radio.

Walter Duranty stood out among his famous and talented colleagues. His brilliant convention and flamboyant lifestyle made him a legendary figure; and the fact that he had a wooden leg and a cane only added to his panache. Born in Liverpool in 1884 and educated at Bedford School and Cambridge, Duranty spent several years in Paris, where he dabbled in Satanism, opium and orgies. The First World War caught him there: he landed a job as a reporter for the New York Times covering the war in France (his association with the NY Times was to last 25 years). His dramatic style brought him a post as the NY Times man in Moscow after the war, and on and off for nearly twenty years he was to be the dean of Western reporters in the Soviet Union.

Reporting from Moscow has never been easy, but in Duranty’s time it was often a weary struggle. The country had just emerged from the most violent revolution in modern times. The economy had collapsed, and everyday things like finding lodgings and getting a telephone took on the character of major campaigns, assuming, of course, that one could get the new Soviet government to issue an entry visa. Once the reporter was installed, he found that traditional Russian suspicion of foreigners, reinforced by enmity between the Soviet Government and Western powers, made it difficult to cover the news. Officials were generally reluctant to talk to the Western press except in the most official settings. Travel around the country was difficult and sometimes impossible to arrange. News stories, once written, had to pass the gauntlet of official Soviet censors before they could be wired home. Although these officials were often obtuse and their censorship criteria sometimes opaque, reporters had no choice but to accept their editing because defiance would lead to a revocation of credentials and expulsion from the Soviet Union.

Moscow reporters also had to contend with professional competition and backbiting. Duranty was constantly undermined in the New York Times home office by jealous rivals and an unsympathetic editor who cut his stories and tried to call the shots from America. In Moscow, although there was a certain camaraderie among the Western reporters, there was also vicious competition. Exacerbated by ideological differences, this competition led to tedious quarrels. It was a situation in which a group of amateur Russia-watchers were paid to compete for a very scarce commodity: reliable information.

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