In 1932, one of the most prestigious honors in journalism, the Pulitzer
Prize, was awarded to Walter Duranty, a New York Times reporter who was
then serving as foreign correspondent in the Soviet Union.
Though many other Pulitzers both deserved and undeserved have been
handed out over the years, Duranty's is remembered more than most.
In the online archive of the prizes (www.pulitzer.org), Duranty's award
is noted in a bland, one-sentence explanation that reads simply: "For
his series of dispatches on Russia especially the working out of the
Five Year Plan."
The reference is to Duranty's reporting on Soviet leader Josef Stalin's
economic plan. Duranty's dispatches helped build an image of Comrade
Stalin's totalitarian state as an idealistic work in progress.
But there were a few things missing from Duranty's stories. These
included the mass murder of Soviet peasants who resisted forced
collectivization, and the deliberate attempt at starvation of the
people of the Ukraine in what is now known as the "terror famine" that
took up to 3 million lives. He also got the part about the disastrous
five-year plan "working out" wrong.
In subsequent years, Duranty followed this up with further lies that
whitewashed Stalin's infamous show trials and purges that resulted in
the deaths of millions more victims of communism.
Duranty's work remains the gold standard of journalism malpractice
primarily because of his political motives. The writer sympathized with
the Soviet Union, and was willing to lie about it.
Sadly, efforts to get the Pulitzer Prize Board to revoke Duranty's
honor have been resisted by both the board and the Times, even though
the latter admits Duranty's reporting was, as current editor Bill
Keller put it, "credulous" and "uncritical."
A MISSING FACT
Unfortunately, that belated admission of fault might well apply to the
latest member of the Times staff to win a Pulitzer. The 2007 Pulitzer
for Feature Writing announced this week went to Andrea Elliot, the
author of an 11,000-word, three-part story, "An Imam in America," about
Sheik Reda Shata of the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, N.Y.
The series, which first appeared on March 5-7, 2006, is touted on the
newspaper's Web site as the story of "the inner life of a mosque in
Brooklyn, and the dynamic, creative, conflicted and fearful imam at its
center: Sheik Reda Shata. Through study and conversation, persuasion
and persistence, Elliott achieved an intimate, tough-minded exploration
of the lives of immigrant Muslims after 9/11."
However, a few things were missing from these "tough-minded" pieces,
which sympathetically portrayed the Egyptian-born Shata.
The most important was Elliot's failure to mention anything about the
role of the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge in the murder of 16-year-old
Ari Halberstam in a van filled with Jewish children on the Brooklyn
Bridge. Not one of her 11,000 words refers to the fact that it was this
same mosque that was the forum for the sermon that inspired one of its
congregants, Rashid Baz, to go out and try to murder as many Jews as he
could in March of 1994.
At Baz's trial, it was revealed that Mohammed Moussa Shata's
predecessor at the mosque was quoted as saying the following in a
sermon heard by the killer on the day of the rampage: "This takes the
mask off of the Jews. It shows them to be racist and fascist as bad as
the Nazis. Palestinians are suffering from the occupation and it's time
to end it."
How, you may ask, could one write about any religious institution and
ignore the most notorious aspect of its recent history?
In a subsequent article in The New York Sun, Halberstam's mother,
Devorah, related that she called Elliot to ask why she had omitted the
story of her son's murder from the feature on the mosque. Elliot
replied that "she knew nothing about it."
This was, at the very least, an indictment of the reporter's research
skills, which ought to have earned her the humiliation of an editor's
note acknowledging the mistake, not journalism's greatest prize.
But there is more wrong here than just one missing fact. It is that the
entire thesis of Elliot's work (which ironically concluded on the 12th
anniversary of Ari's death) was to portray Shata and his mosque as a
force for moderation.
Setting up her subject, Elliot insists that "imams like Shata men who
embrace American freedom and condemn the radicals they feel have
tainted their faith rarely make the news."
While Shata did not give the sermon that inspired Baz, he did praise
the Hamas terror group, and spoke of its leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, as
a "lion of Palestine [who] has been martyred." As even Elliot was
constrained to note, Shata had also praised a Palestinian female
suicide bomber, Reem Al-Reyashi, as a "martyr."
Absent from the feature is any attempt at a serious discussion of how a
religious leader who praises terrorists can, at the same time, pretend
to be fostering interfaith dialogue with Jews and Christians. Shata
utters coded responses such as, "What I may see as terrorism, you may
not see that way," without follow-up from his interviewer.
Though quite a bit of space in the piece was devoted to the imam's
attempts at matchmaking, serious issues about the way Islamist
practices intersect with American life were left out. Their views of
sensitive subjects such as "honor" killings of women or polygamy remain
Instead, what Elliot and presumably, her editors were interested
in was the supposed plight of American Muslims in a hostile society.
This is in spite of the fact that attacks on Muslims in post-9/11
America have been notably rare, and that American leaders have gone out
of their way to distinguish Islam from Islamist extremists.
While the newspaper describes her beat as "focusing on the impact of
9/11 on American Muslims," a better way to describe it might be to say
its purpose is to divert us from the need to focus on Islamist
The Times had another use for their pages: making the rest of us feel
guilty about the sensitivities of some Muslim-Americans whose views on
terrorism are understandably unpopular. Facts that don't feed into
these assumptions are slighted or completely ignored.
Like more recent Times coverage of the Council on American Islamic
Relations, in which those apologists for terror have been allowed to
rebrand themselves as a "civil-rights group," the reporting here leaves
little doubt that this is a newspaper on a mission. The result is not
only shoddy journalism; it is a politically inspired muddle that leaves
us knowing only those elements of the life of Shata and his mosque that
he wishes to present to us.
Both Elliot and Duranty crossed the same line when they allowed their
agenda to dictate their coverage. While Duranty covered up genocide,
dishonesty about Islamist extremism is no less egregious.
What this proves is that those who imagined that Duranty was a relic of
journalism's past were wrong. That a travesty such as Elliot's "imam"
would bring a Pulitzer is a disgrace that again taints the reputation
of both the prizes and the Times.