Tuesday, October 28, 2003

The New York Times apparently doesn't want Walter Duranty's 1932 Pulitzer Prize for journalism revoked. Times editor Bill Keller writes, "[a]s someone who spent time in the Soviet Union while it still existed, the notion of airbrushing history kind of gives me the creeps." Eugene Volokh disagrees: "No-one is suggesting that the Pulitzer people and the Times enter into some conspiracy to pretend that the award had never been given....This isn't airbrushing history; it's correcting error."

Volokh's argument is superficially appealing, and the Times is obviously not without a vested interest in seeking to avoid an embarrassing revocation of its reporter's honor. But I believe Keller's point actually reflects a more accurate view of such prizes in general, and the Pulitzers in particular. For in fact they do not represent today's consensus verdict on any particular past year's best reporting, but rather the consensus of the Pulitzer committee of the year in question. Moreover, it is doubtful that Duranty's is anywhere near alone among all past Pulitzers in being considered today to have been awarded "in error". And it is entirely possible that decades from now, several past Pulitzer winners will be seen to have been even more egregiously chosen than Duranty's.

Thus to revoke Duranty's prize today would be to imply--completely falsely--that the historical list of "unrescinded" Pulitzers reflects a current consensus regarding the best journalism of past years. Such a consensus would in fact be very difficult to achieve, and quite possibly less useful to catalog, in the end, than the choices of contemporaries reflected in the unaltered Pulitzer list.

That Duranty was awarded a Pulitzer is a blot upon the prize's reputation. The only purpose of rescinding the prize today would be to imply--again, completely falsely--that today's Pulitzer committee is somehow less prone to the shortsightedness that led to Duranty's being honored seventy years ago. Future generations are free to judge that for themselves, and would be foolish to rely on this year's committee to make the decision for them.

No comments: