July 16, 2020 Reading Time: 7 minutes
Walter Duranty of the NYT, as featured in the 2019 film Mr. Jones

The resignation letter from former New York Times editor and writer Bari Weiss was so powerful because it seemed to state what many once-loyal readers – I’ve been among them for many years, even given the obvious bias of the paper – already knew given the way things there have been going in the last year or so. 

Something has gone very wrong at the newspaper of record. Weiss named it in a very satisfying letter writing with a burning desire to tell the truth. 

Op-eds that would have easily been published just two years ago would now get an editor or a writer in serious trouble, if not fired. If a piece is perceived as likely to inspire backlash internally or on social media, the editor or writer avoids pitching it. If she feels strongly enough to suggest it, she is quickly steered to safer ground. And if, every now and then, she succeeds in getting a piece published that does not explicitly promote progressive causes, it happens only after every line is carefully massaged, negotiated and caveated.

At this paper, dogma has replaced reporting. Ideology has displaced facts. All facts are filtered through an agenda. If something doesn’t fit the agenda, it is not reported. I’ve become so frustrated with this, especially during the lockdown months in which the paper seemed to have a rule of blaming the virus and not the policy response for all existing problems, that I find it barely readable anymore. 

When precisely this happened is unclear. Some say that the “woke” generation has figured out how to troll the old-time liberals that used to run the shop. Some would name the 1619 Project, which might have been an interesting and important coming to terms with a dark side of American history but instead turned into a full-on trashing of every American value plus the existence of capitalism itself. (You can read Phil Magness’s masterful response in book form.) 

My own overwhelming consciousness that something had fallen apart began on February 27, 2020, with the New York Times podcast. Reporter Donald McNeil told the host of this podcast that “this is alarmist, but I think right now, it’s justified. This one reminds me of what I have read about the 1918 Spanish influenza.” 

Reminds him? That’s his justification for spreading international panic? He claimed that “If you have 300 relatively close friends and acquaintances, six of them would die.” The host of the show summed up McNeil’s message: “2 percent lethality rate of 50 percent of the country,” meaning 3.5 million dead. McNeil didn’t disagree. 

I was stunned because there was zero evidence for such outlandish claims. Not even Neil Ferguson predicted anything that ridiculous. Meanwhile, genuine experts were desperately trying to calm people down even as the New York Times was spreading maximum panic, probably for political reasons. 

In the weeks and months since then, the paper’s coronavirus doctrine was set in stone. It goes like this. This is a terrifying pandemic. Many millions will die. Everyone is vulnerable. The only solution is to lock down. If we don’t lock down, it is Trump’s fault. Therefore Trump is responsible for all death. That message has been repeated thousands of times, every day in every way, ever since. 

This is not science. It is not reporting. It is fanatical ideology in the guise of reporting. Thank goodness former Times reporters like Alex Berenson call them out daily. 

Now, readers see all this and say to me, hey, things have never been right at this paper. I would dispute that. From 1934 to 1946, the great economic journalist Henry Hazlitt wrote not only a daily editorial but also curated the Book Reviews. There were times when the name Ludwig von Mises appeared on the front page of that review section, with glowing reviews of his books. 

Even looking back at the paper’s virus coverage of the postwar past, the rule was always the same: bring calm and urge trust of medical professionals to manage the disease but otherwise keep society functioning. That’s what the paper said in 1957-58 (Asian Flu) and 1968-69 (Hong Kong Flu). The paper has a long tradition of trying to find that “vital center” while allowing editorials on either end of that so long as they seemed responsible. (As for its coverage during the Progressive Era, I’ll leave that alone; it was nothing about which to brag.) 

However, there is one gigantic, glaring, appalling, and essentially inexcusable exception to that. It is the case of Walter Duranty, the Times’s bureau chief in Moscow from 1922 to 1936. He was in a prime position to tell the truth about the catastrophic famines, political purges, rampant murders, and millions dead at the hands of the Soviet regime during these years. He was stationed there, ruled the roost, and had access to information denied to most of the rest of the world. 

In particular, Duranty might have covered the millions who died (were slaughtered really) due to deliberate famine in Ukraine from 1932 to 1933. He did not. He did the opposite. In frequent articles for the Times, Duranty assured readers that all was well, that Stalin was a great leader, that everyone was more or less happy, that there was nothing to see in Ukraine. 

His later book was called I Write as I Please (1935). It should have been called I Write to Please Stalin. Incredibly, the paper won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his coverage. The paper has never repudiated it. They still claim credit for it, despite the horrors that its pages were responsible for hiding from the world. 

It’s extremely difficult to face this terrible history but once you do, you experience a major example of how lies can perpetuate a killing machine. Duranty ruled the press in Moscow, suppressing truth in every way possible and convincing the world that all was well in the Soviet Union, even though it is quite clear from the documented history that he knew better. He preferred the lie to the truth, probably because he was being blackmailed but also because he was a communist and had absolutely no moral compass. To what extent his New York editors cooperated in this outrageous fraud remains unclear. At the very least, they wanted him to be correct so much that they didn’t bother with an ounce of incredulity, even though he was exculpating and celebrating a totalitarian dictator.

It was this disgusting period of the paper’s history that ultimately led to the cover-up of one of the century’s greatest crimes. It was only revealed, through great moral courage, by journalist Malcolm Muggeridge (writing for the Manchester Guardian) and then by Gareth Jones, an independent English journalist who saw the suffering first hand, experienced near starvation, barely got out of Moscow, and, at great risk to himself and others, revealed the crimes of Stalin and the calamity in Ukraine to the world. 

Which brings me to the real inspiration for this article: the 2019 movie Mr. Jones. You can rent it on Amazon. I urge you to do so. It’s a riveting historical epic based entirely on the true story of Duranty, Orwell, and Jones. 

Rarely has a movie haunted me so much. It’s brilliant, mostly historically accurate, and celebratory of the kind of moral courage it requires to cause truth to prevail over lies in an age of tyranny. How is it possible that millions could die and the world not know and so many people would cooperate in the deliberate suppression of truth – people who otherwise had prestige and privilege and reputations for integrity? It happens. It did happen. It could happen again, unless people are willing to stand up and say what is true. 

In some ways, it is happening now. 

I’m pretty sure you know the feeling of looking at actual facts on the ground of this virus and then comparing them with the frenzied mania you get on the news daily, and especially at the New York Times, which only today warned that countless others will die if we don’t re-lockdown the entire country. 

It only takes a modicum of intelligence to realize that this writer is talking about “cases,” which are overwhelmingly a result of required tests, mostly asymptomatic, and focused on the young and healthy who are in very little danger from this virus. We know this. We’ve known this since February. But he doesn’t tell the readers that. Instead it is hysterical and urging more, more, more public panic and a national lockdown.

In these months, the pattern at the Times has been the same:

  • Attribute terrible economic fallout not to the lockdowns but to the virus; 
  • Attribute virus fallout to the failure to lockdown enough; 
  • Deliberately confuse readers about the difference between tests, cases, and deaths;
  • Never focus on the incredibly obvious demographics of C19 death: average age 82 with underlying conditions; 
  • Ignore completely the primary victims of lockdowns: especially small businesses, the poor and minority groups, marginalized communities, artists, immigrant communities, small towns, small theaters, and so on. 
  • Do not publish anything that speaks of the path that all civilized countries prior dealt with new viruses: the vulnerable protect themselves while everyone else gets exposed with resulting immunity (Sweden did as well as any country because it refused to violate human rights);
  • Dismiss any alternative to lockdown as crazy, unscientific, and cruel, while acting as if Fauci speaks for the whole of the scientific community;
  • Above all, promote panic over calm.

From what I can tell, the last time that the New York Times ran anything realistic or sensible on this whole subject was March 20, 2020: Dr. David Katz on why the costs of lockdown are too high. Re-reading it now, it is apparent that the editors forced him to dial back his views, because elsewhere he was much more explicit.

At this point, it’s painful even to read their daily news reports, because they are all so transparently and obviously an extension of this above pattern and the larger agenda, which seems so obviously political. I don’t believe that everyone at the Times approves of this; it’s just an ethos that becomes self enforcing in the interest of job retention and career ambition. 

I’ve been asked countless times whether this censorship at the Times of serious commentary is driven by politics, and, namely, Trump hatred. As an early critic of the president and someone who has written probably several hundred articles criticizing many aspects of this administration’s politics, the idea that an entire nation would be caused unthinkable suffering in the name of a holy war against Trump is basically unconscionable. Is it true? There is surely a grain of truth to the suspicions here, and even one grain is too much. 

It is in this sense that the news reporting and editorial policies of the New York Times today remind me of 1932 and the way in which journalism is being used to push out dogma over truth, selective facts over full and balanced coverage, ideology over tolerance, propaganda over diversity of opinion, and an aggressive political agenda over humane and careful journalism. It seems out of control at this point. 

This is why the inside testimony of Bari Weiss is so valuable and timely. Tolerance for different points of view sounds good in theory. In practice, there is an enormous draw toward righthink and the exercise of the cruelty toward those who land on the wrong side. 

What can be done? In 1932, there weren’t many alternatives to the New York Times. Today there are. It is up to each of us to get smart, get moral, sniff out and reject the lies, and find and tell the truth in other ways. 

Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker served as Editorial Director for the American Institute for Economic Research from 2017 to 2021.

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