Is the Pulitzer Prize Board Clueless?


Mr. Pelech has degrees in History from New York University and a Ph.D. from Fordham University.

In December 2002, I started a correspondence with the Pulitzer prize board about the rogue in their gallery of excellence, Walter Duranty, the British-born reporter in Moscow for The New York Times between 1922 and 1934. His dispatches quickly degenerated into parroting of Soviet propaganda. In 1932, he won a Pulitzer prize for foreign correspondence for a series of 11 articles and two separate articles written in 1931. After receiving the prize, he denied the existence of the Soviet-engineered famine in Ukraine in 1933 that killed several million of the rural population. 1

The ‘communicators’ of the Board remained silent and allowed the administrator of the prizes, Sigvard Gissler, to do the talking for them. 2 Gissler, administrator of the prizes since July 1, 2002, 3 was at a disadvantage. He knew nothing about Duranty. In his replies to me, Gissler relied largely on his predecessor. Gissler’s replies were unsatisfactory. I finally instructed him that “as Administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, you should be able to advise me of the Pulitzer Board’s guidelines for having Walter Duranty’s Pulitzer Prize revoked.” 4

In the meantime, a massive protest campaign by Ukrainians and others demanding the revocation of Duranty’s prize forced the Pulitzer board to go through the pretense of doing something about the Duranty prize. In April, 2003, Gissler announced that the board had decided to appoint a committee to consider the question of Duranty’s prize, a second time in thirteen years.

Douglas McCollam reported in the Columbia Journalism Review: “Gissler … says the committee was not formed in response to the letter-writing campaign, which he says didn’t start in earnest until around May of this year, but because the board views the allegations against Duranty as serious enough to merit an in-depth inquiry.” 5

This raises the question, who brought the accusations against Duranty to the attention of the board? The board had shown no concern about Duranty before my letters and those of others brought the matter to their attention. Were they reacting to my letters of December 2002 – January 2003, or perhaps to the letters of several Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholic parishes demanding the revocation of Duranty’s prize? The board certainly did not initiate an investigation of Duranty without external prodding.

Rena Pederson, co-chair of the Board, is also quoted by McCollam as saying that the Duranty controversy is "a serious issue that we are looking at in the most thoughtful way possible."We shall see how “thoughtfully” these worthies looked at the Duranty issue.

By November, 2003, after months of pretentious posturing, Gissler was no better off than he had been at the beginning of the year. Prodded by a world-wide campaign to revoke Duranty’s prize, the board was also being threatened by Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., publisher of the Times, and his hired help. The Sulzbergers donate large amounts to Columbia University and hire more than their share of graduates of the School of Journalism. In return for this largesse, some claim, the Times and its staff receive an inordinate number of Pulitzer prizes.6

In the end, Gissler resorted to repetitions of random statements by The New York Times and his predecessor, Seymour Topping (1993-2002), a former Timesman. 7 The repetition of these statements, however, had no bearing on the question at hand.

The ‘statement’ issued by Gissler on November 21, 2003, 8 contained two misstatements. The first was that more than six months of study and deliberation had preceded the Board’s decision regarding Duranty’s prize. There is no clear and convincing evidence that such a study had taken place. Richard Oppel, editor of the Austin American-Statesman, reportedly the chair of the committee that studied Duranty’s prize9 refused to reply to queries regarding the study: the sources used, the scholars consulted, and the members of the committee. 10 Mike Pride, editor of the Concord Monitor and co-chair of the Board in 2008, was quoted in an article announcing his appointment as co-chair of the Pulitzer board in 2007 as saying that “the [Pulitzer] Board looked closely at Duranty’s articles and did nothing about them.” When challenged to prove that a study had taken place, Pride remained silent. 11

Further, Gissler claimed that ”there was not clear and convincing evidence of deliberate deception, the relevant standard in this case.” This statement is not substantiated by any proof and has no merit on its own. However, it does have value because it follows my request to Gissler earlier in the year, “to advise me of the Pulitzer Board’s guidelines for having Walter Duranty’s Pulitzer Prize revoked.”

According to Gissler, “deliberate deception” is the standard for revoking Duranty’s prize. In March, 2007, I sent Gissler, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., and members of the board proof of deception in Duranty’s "prize-winning” articles of 1931 12.

Sigvard remained silent.

Is this the kind of journalism that is taught at the Columbia School of Journalism and practiced by the newspapers employing the Pulitzer board members? 13

Response by the Pulitzer Prize Board

HNN gave the Pulitzer Prize Board the opportunity of reviewing this article in advance. On July 7, 2008 we received an email from Sig Gissler directing our attention to the following statement, posted on the Pulitzer Prize website:

Statement on Walter Duranty's 1932 Prize

Nov. 21, 2003

After more than six months of study and deliberation, the Pulitzer Prize Board has decided it will not revoke the foreign reporting prize awarded in 1932 to Walter Duranty of The New York Times.

In recent months, much attention has been paid to Mr. Duranty's dispatches regarding the famine in the Soviet Union in 1932-1933, which have been criticized as gravely defective. However, a Pulitzer Prize for reporting is awarded not for the author's body of work or for the author's character but for the specific pieces entered in the competition. Therefore, the Board focused its attention on the 13 articles that actually won the prize, articles written and published during 1931. [A complete list of the articles, with dates and headlines, is attached.]

In its review of the 13 articles, the Board determined that Mr. Duranty's1931 work, measured by today's standards for foreign reporting, falls seriously short. In that regard, the Board's view is similar to that of The New York Times itself and of some scholars who have examined his 1931 reports. However, the Board concluded that there was not clear and convincing evidence of deliberate deception, the relevant standard in this case. Revoking a prize 71 years after it was awarded under different circumstances, when all principals are dead and unable to respond, would be a momentous step and therefore would have to rise to that threshold.

The famine of 1932-1933 was horrific and has not received the international attention it deserves. By its decision, the Board in no way wishes to diminish the gravity of that loss. The Board extends its sympathy to Ukrainians and others in the United States and throughout the world who still mourn the suffering and deaths brought on by Josef Stalin.

Walter Duranty's 13 articles in 1931 submitted for 1932 Pulitzer Prize

Eleven-part series in The New York Times

Duranty 1
"Red Russia of Today Ruled by Stalinism, Not Communism"

Duranty 2
"Socialism First Aim in Soviet's Program; Trade Gains Second"

Duranty 3
"Stalinism Shelves World Revolt Idea; To Win Russia First"

Duranty 4
"Industrial Success Emboldens Soviet in New World Policy"

Duranty 5
"Trade Equilibrium is New Soviet Goal"

Duranty 6
"Soviet Fixes Opinion by Widest Control"

Duranty 7
"Soviet Censorship Hurts Russia Most"

Duranty 8
"Stalinism Smashes Foes in Marx's Name"

Duranty 9
"Red Army is Held No Menace to Peace"

Duranty 10
"Stalinism Solving Minorities Problem"

Duranty 11
"Stalinism's Mark is Party Discipline"

Two articles in The New York Times magazine

Duranty 12
"The Russian Looks at the World"

Duranty 13
"Stalin's Russia Is An Echo of Iron Ivan's"



2 In his speech as co-chair of the board at the Pulitzer luncheon trough on May 29, 2003, William Safire vociferously stated: “Nobody speaks for the Pulitzer prize board. Our administrator is empowered by the board to answer questions about our methods and history and release the names of awardees, but when it comes to policy, nobody issues pronouncements.” Nonetheless, I stand by my statement that the board allowed Gissler to speak for them.

3 “Journalism's Sig Gissler to Become New Pulitzer Prize Administrator,” Columbia News, April 18, 2002:

4Correspondence between Markian Pelech and the Pulitzer Board during 2003 regarding Walter Duranty's 1932 Pulitzer Prize,

5 Douglas McCollam, “Should this Pulitzer be Pulled?” Columbia Journalism Review, 2003,

6 J. Douglas Bates,  The Pulitzer Prizes (New York, 1990), Chapter 11, “Columbia, the Prizes, and the Times.”

7 “Journalism's Sig Gissler to Become New Pulitzer Prize Administrator,” Columbia News, April 18, 2002:


9 Douglas McCollam, “Should this Pulitzer be Pulled?” Columbia Journalism Review, 2003 [].

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12 Markian Pelech, “Walter Duranty’s 1932 Pulitzer Prize Invalidated. The Pulitzer Board set the Standard” 2007.

13 Markian Pelech, “The little board that wouldn’t,” p. 7-8,

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Nigel Linsan Colley - 8/1/2008

Further to your convincing proof-list of Duranty 'deceptions' from his 1931 prize-winning' articles (footnote number 12), I would like to add to this continued revocation debate, with a further & little known piece of Duranty’s famine-denial sophistry.
On the 6th April 1933, less than a week after Duranty's infamous famine deception article ‘Russians Hungry, But Not Starving’ (31 March 1933) in which he denigrated my great uncle, Gareth Jones’ truthful reports, Duranty was up to his usual tricks again…
From Marco Carynnyk’s 1986 paper; ‘Making the News Fit to Print: Walter Duranty, the New York Times & the Ukrainian Famine of 1933’, in which he quoted from Duranty's NYT article; ‘Soviet Industry Shows Big Gains’. Carynnyk wrote:
“In early 1933, Duranty bruited prosperity & abundance. “In the excitement over the Spring sowing campaign and reports of an increased food shortage,” he announced, “a fact that has been almost overlooked is that the production of coal, pig iron, steel, automobiles, tractors, locomotives, and machine tools has increased by 20 to 35 per cent during recent months. That is the most effective proof that the food shortage as a whole is less grave than was believed.”
Now, this final sentence above from Duranty’s article is simply a monstrous lie and yet, I serious doubt whether this further proof of Duranty’s deception was ever considered by the Pulitzer Board in their flawed 2003 review?
As a follow-up famine-denial article, I believe it conclusively shows that Duranty’s purpose was to be continually deceptive & furthermore, his actions were clearly deliberate & premeditated?
My family is still awaiting a long-overdue apology from the Public Editor of New York Times on behalf of their errant former employee… It is never too late for them to grasp the nettle and eventually do the decent thing, namely; jettison their ill-gotten prize and posthumously ‘say sorry’, to not only Gareth Jones, but also the forgotten millions of victims, for their tarnished role in arguably Stalin’s greatest atrocity…