by Ashley Rindsberg
Tuesday, 10
May 2022
Explainer
11:45

The New York Times’s worst Pulitzer Prize winners

A selection of the award's least deserving recipients
by Ashley Rindsberg
Nikole Hannah-Jones was awarded a Pulitzer for her controversial 1619 project

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the most egregious examples of the New York Times Pulitzers that should never have been awarded and still have not been rescinded.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

William Laurence, left, with Gen. Leslie Groves, the military head of the Manhattan Project

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.

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Lillian Fry
Lillian Fry
6 months ago

Read Rindsberg’s book: THE GRAY LADY WINKED. The NYT has spread fake news for nearly 100 years.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
6 months ago

The bigger the lie, the more they praise you. The Pulitzer is a prize for the faithless and the foul.

R.Craven
R.Craven
6 months ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

Yes indeed, and the same is true of the NYT

Sean Penley
Sean Penley
6 months ago

I’ve been assured by the smartest people in the world that calling out stories from esteemed news sources as ‘fake news’ is dangerous, possibly racist, and a sign of extreme narcissism. The truth is what they say it is, end of story. I love Big Brother.

DA Johnson
DA Johnson
6 months ago

Thanks to Ashey Rindsberg for this retrospective. It’s interesting to learn that it is not just recently that the NYT has been in the business of misinformation, and that its reputation as being “the paper of record” has long been undeserved.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
6 months ago
Reply to  DA Johnson

Yes, the ‘paper of record’ is so out-of-date, it actually sounds like a charming blast-from-the-past slogan. Today’s proliferation of news outlets where a multitude of perspectives can be read has made the NYTimes just one more voice and a rather inaccurate, ideological one at that, I.e. not news but propaganda.

Last edited 6 months ago by Cathy Carron
Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
6 months ago

How did the NYT fare on Cambodia during Pol Pot?

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
6 months ago

Though I guess not blatant enough to make the list, some of the New York Times reports on Russian interference in the 2016 election were misleading in their implications if not in their facts.
Coverage by the New York Times (and the Washington Post, which won a Pulitzer this year for it) of the January 6, 2021 riot at the US Capitol was equally trumped up to target Donald Trump.

Philip Burrell
Philip Burrell
6 months ago

On the other hand the winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, are more often than not a damn good read and probably contain more truths than the efforts of those above.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
6 months ago

What a disappointment the NYT is. To think I used to follow them (hangs head in shame).

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
6 months ago

You should do penance by avoiding that shark infested beach of yours for 40 days.

Mark Duffett
Mark Duffett
6 months ago

Inclusion of William Laurence in this hall of infamy is questionable, according to this nuanced take: https://undark.org/2017/08/09/atomic-bill-laurence-manhattan-project/
Certainly the pendulum about perceived and actual dangers of radiation sickness has swung way too far in the other direction. In this sense Laurence was closer to the truth than many others. https://aeon.co/ideas/fear-of-radiation-is-more-dangerous-than-radiation-itself

Ian Steadman
Ian Steadman
6 months ago
Reply to  Mark Duffett

That “nuanced take” you refer to is worth reading but it doesn’t in any way diminish Ashley Rindsberg’s argument (you can see his own more nuanced and very detailed account in his book on “The Gray Lady”). Laurence’s reporting betrayed his journalistic calling. For Gray Lady journalists, the equivalent of a physician’s hippocratic oath could be described not unreasonably as a hypocritical oath.

Maria Flynn
Maria Flynn
6 months ago

It’s a shame that after 90 years, the Pulitzer Board still refuses to revoke Walter Duranty’s Pulitzer Prize. Duranty knew of the artificial famine induced by Stalin on the Ukrainian farmers that caused anywhere from 7 to 10 million deaths, yet he concealed the truth in order to continue having access to Stalin and received a lavish lifestyle in Moscow in return. He was complicit to this genocide yet he was given the noblest of all prizes for his writing by the Pulitzer Board.

Juan Sabogal
Juan Sabogal
6 months ago

I have no doubts that most of these award’s winners made mistakes (i.e. involuntarily) or had their own bias which distorted their views (like it does to us all). I’d just like to point out that the award takes a wider view at the production of the journalist and even if they committed gross errors, as Mr Rindsberg correctly points out, they also produced brilliant pages of journalism, often in clear contradiction of the pollitically correct opinion of the times and more so against government’s propaganda (and blatant lies). In summary, pointing only to their mistakes -or deceptions, and ignoring the rest of their good work is quite unfair . Halberstam (as Sheehan) lie, in my view in this category.

Last edited 6 months ago by jbsabogal
R.Craven
R.Craven
6 months ago
Reply to  Juan Sabogal

You can’t sincerely defend the 1619 Project on this basis.