A selection of the award's least deserving recipients
As is now customary with Pulitzer Prize announcements, readers have been greeted with a deluge of self-congratulatory and preening pieces by media outlets about their various successes. But despite all the glitz and glamour associated with journalism’s most famous prize, not all of the previous winners have been quite so illustrious.
To this point, the New York Times has received almost twice as many Pulitzers as its next closest competitor, the Washington Post (a statistic that in itself should raise some questions). Accordingly, many of the paper’s most high-profile Pulitzer wins illustrate not just how wrong the Pulitzer Center often is, but, much more importantly, its intransigence amid calls for the return of ill-gotten prizes.
Below are a few of the most egregious examples of the New York Times Pulitzers that should never have been awarded and still have not been rescinded.
1. Walter Duranty — Soviet Russia, 1932
Walter Duranty was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his work denying the reality of the Ukraine Famine, a genocide created by Stalin. In 2003, the Ukrainian-American community issued calls for the New York Times to return the Pulitzer, a call endorsed by a historical consultant the newspaper hired to make an independent assessment.
Despite this, the paper’s publisher refused to return the prize — and the Pulitzer Center concurred. After studying the issue for six months, the Center decided it would not rescind the Duranty Pulitzer, averring that — despite Duranty’s own admission to the contrary — there was “no clear and convincing evidence of deliberate deception”.
2. Otto Tolischus — Nazi Germany, 1940
Otto Tolischus was a New York Times’ Berlin correspondent who, on the eve of the Second World War incorrectly reported that Poland had attacked Germany. This report, which would shape American public perception of the early days of the war, had devastating consequences, giving Hitler the initiative he needed to start his campaign of conquest in Europe.
This was no accident. Rather, it was part of a Nazi-led propaganda blitz called Operation Himmler, a ploy Tolischus bought without flinching. At that crucial moment, in the lead story of the New York Times’ edition for that day, Tolischus printed the entirety of Hitler’s speech to the Reichstag justifying his invasion of Poland. He reported not a single word of response by a Polish official.
3. William Laurence — the Atomic Bomb, 1946
In the late 1930s, William Laurence reported intensively on advances in nuclear technology. His reports were brilliant and incisive, the writing clear and bold. But then his reporting stopped. It turns out that his reporting was so brilliant that the United States government tapped him to write propaganda concerning its nascent nuclear weapons project. Laurence would toe the government line, and, in turn, he’d get to be the only non-military, non-government member aboard one of the bombers that dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki.
The only problem was that part of Laurence’s propaganda work was denying the existence of radiation sickness. The US War Department needed funding to grow its nuclear programme, and that meant convincing Americans they had nothing to fear from this device. Laurence delivered, not just denying radiation sickness in his own reporting but denying the reporting of other journalists who had learned firsthand the horrors of radiation poisoning.
4. Frederick Birchall — the Rise of the Nazis, 1934
In the lead-up to the Berlin Olympics — another propaganda blitz by the Nazi leadership — Frederick Birchall worked hard to assure readers of the New York Times that the German leaders (who would enact the Nuremberg Laws two months later, and had spent a decade persecuting Jews and other minorities) ‘have given a pledge that there shall be no race discrimination in the selection of the country’s official Olympians.’ Birchall told readers that, after the games, Nazi stormtroopers would ‘count for nothing or less.’ In fact, Birchall proclaimed the Nazi Olympics to be “The Greatest Sporting Event of All Time.” In turn, Birchall was awarded a Pulitzer Prize “for unbiased reporting from Germany.”
5. David Halberstam – Vietnam
David Halberstam was the New York Times’ brash and brainy Vietnam correspondent in the early days of the war. Along with his successor, Neil Sheehan, Halberstam worked vigorously to effect what he thought to be the only way forward for America’s war in southeast Asia — the overthrow of the South Vietnamese government led by Ngo Dinh Diem.
To make his case, Halberstam ran strings of unsourced reports alleging wide discontent with Diem, relying heavily on a source who would later be exposed as a North Vietnamese spy, and published false accounts of the Diem government’s alleged brutality. In one case, Halberstam reported that the Diem government massacred 30 Buddhist monks, thereby strengthening an emerging storyline about violent repression of Buddhism by the Catholic Diem. Turns out, however, not a single monk was killed that day — something Halberstam never corrected.
6. Nikole Hannah-Jones – the 1619 Project, 2020
With the now infamous 1619 Project, the New York Times set out to change history — literally. The Project, created and led by reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, sought to “reframe” American history, rooting its founding in slavery rather than liberty. But to achieve this 180-degree revision, Hannah-Jones had to make claims that outraged history scholars — including those consulted by the Times itself.
The most fundamental claims issued by the 1619 Project were rebutted by a broad spectrum of historians. This included dubious claims that slavery made the North rich, that Abraham Lincoln was a racist in abolitionist clothes, and that all whites benefited from slavery. But the most egregious claim made by the star reporter was also the Project’s lynchpin — that the American Revolution was fought to preserve slavery. The Northwest University professor of African-American history whom the Times tapped as a fact-checker disputed this claim “vigorously” and objected to its use in the Project. But, in the professor’s words, Nikole Hannah-Jones made this damaging and false claim “anyway”.
7. The New York Times – Coronavirus, 2021
The Times was awarded a 2021 Pulitzer for its “courageous” reporting on the Covid-19 pandemic, a strange decision considering the Times has been disproportionately responsible for the unfounded campaign to discredit lab leak, the theory that the virus emerged from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Ashley Rindsberg is an investigative reporter and author of The Gray Lady Winked: How the New York Times’ Misreporting, Distortions and Fabrications Radically Alter History.