Unexpectedly Intriguing!
04 March 2005

There has long been a crosscurrent in mainstream U.S. journalism that puts the desire to collect coverage from areas of the world where the free practice of journalism is severely restricted ahead of the journalist’s mission of reporting the news of the world that is. Fully manifested, this desire of newsroom editors to get exclusives from regions hostile to a free press results in their news outlets becoming little more than a platform for propaganda rather than a true accounting of what life is really like behind the repressive regime’s borders. We saw this pattern most recently with Eason Jordan’s decision to make this trade-off with CNN’s coverage of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq just for the sake of being able to transmit live reports from within that country.

Today’s example of this dysfunctional relationship was first presented in the Los Angeles Times’ front page article "North Korea, Without the Rancor" by Barbara Demick, which appeared on March 3, 2005. This article has now been followed by another article by the same author in the March 4, 2005 edition of the LA Times "N. Korea Lists Conditions for Negotiations." The first article mainly provides a sympathetic platform advancing the propaganda of the “benevolent father leader” of the internationally isolated nation rather than any real insight into the lives of North Koreans under the world’s most totalitarian dictatorship. The second article continues advancing the agenda of the North Korean dictatorship, describing how "miffed" the North Korean dictator was at U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s description of North Korea as an "outpost of tyranny," and in tone seems far more concerned with providing a voice to the dictator’s petty demands and perceived slights received at the hands of the U.S. than in challenging the validity of the dictator’s claims.

So why do mainstream news outlets continue doing this dance of acquiescence with these tyrants? To understand why, we need to go back to the 1930s, when the New York Times commissioned reporter Walter Duranty to cover the Soviet Union in the days of Josef Stalin. Duranty was all too willing to provide a voice for Stalin’s propaganda in exchange for access, and all through the era of Stalin’s five-year plans that led to the deaths of millions through forced starvation in the Ukraine, readers of Duranty’s reports from the region had no indication that anything bad was happening. It was not until the 1950s when the atrocities that occurred under Stalin were revealed to the world by Nikita Khrushchev that Duranty’s reporting was itself exposed to be little other than a collection of Stalin’s lies and propaganda. For his "reporting," Duranty won the Pulitzer Prize for correspondence in 1932.

Maybe that Pulitzer Prize explains it all. The continuing trade-off by news editors of truthful reporting for access would suggest that the main lesson they learned from the Duranty case is that if you can get away with it for long enough, you will reap rewards. Even with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, Walter Duranty’s Pulitzer Prize has never been rescinded. It stands today as a monument to the benefits of buying exclusives and access at the small cost of free, truthful reporting. And never mind the price of blood, which is the true legacy of Walter Duranty. You would think a clear conscience would be worth more to an editor.

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