Rewrite History? Sometimes We Should | Media | Chicago Reader

Rewrite History? Sometimes We Should 

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It was almost the perfect photo. Ricky Clemons had just drained a three-point shot at the buzzer, and the Missouri Tigers were strutting jubilantly off home court at halftime with a two-point lead over Colorado. The players' arms were flung high in the air, like the arms of the referee who'd just called the trey, and like hundreds of arms in the background raised by ecstatic fans.

Yes, it was a joyous photo to spread across two pages of the 2003-'04 Missouri basketball media guide. The one problem was Clemons himself, half-hidden behind a teammate and a Colorado player in the bottom right-hand corner of the picture. It wasn't that the man of the minute should have been front and center. It was that by the time this season's guide was being produced, no one wanted Clemons in the picture at all.

Last January, the month before the picture was taken, an ex-girlfriend had accused Clemons of choking her and not letting her leave his apartment. She was soon making accusations about money given to Clemons, about test answers provided. That Clemons was able to keep playing at all, to star in the Colorado game and help carry Missouri into the NCAA tournament, was due to his coach's firm belief in human redemption.

In April, after the season was over, Clemons pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of assault and "false imprisonment" and was suspended from the team for a year and sentenced to 60 days in a work-release program. His coach asked the president of the university to befriend this young man who so clearly needed guidance, and the president said he would do what he could.

Last July 4 the president was entertaining at home when Clemons dropped by. It was a family occasion, and no other students were present. But Clemons was welcomed, and when he showed an interest in an ATV owned by the president's wife he was allowed to take it for a spin. The ATV overturned on a gravel road, landing Clemons in the hospital with broken ribs and a punctured lung. Then it turned out he'd been enjoying himself at the president's house long after he was due back at the work-release center from what was supposed to have been a "study session." A local judge ordered him to spend the rest of his sentence in the county jail. The coach visited him there and threw him off the team.

The press was on this shameful saga like flies on roadkill. Which is why Missouri had no interest in publishing a new media guide that reminded anyone that Ricky Clemons ever existed. Yet if you looked hard at this irresistible picture--there he was.

What would Stalin do?

The athletic department did the same thing. It Photoshopped Clemons out of the picture--filling the hole with the figure of a photographer squatting along the sideline. Nothing remained of Clemons but his dim shadow on the gleaming court.

The photo had been taken by Ed Pfueller of the Columbia Daily Tribune and had won an award from the National Press Photographers Association. Thanks to a handshake agreement with the Daily Tribune, the athletic department had the right to reproduce the picture in the guide, but when Pfueller saw what the university had done to it he was astonished.

"I know if I did that to a picture it would mean my job and it would be national news," Pfueller told Daily Tribune columnist Tony Messenger. But the athletic department didn't see a problem. The director of media relations told the Associated Press, "We do that with photos quite frequently if there is something in the photo we don't like."

Among journalists, erasing anybody from a photo for any reason--airbrushing history--is a slope too slippery to put a toe on. Once the Moving Finger writes and moves on, our tears can't wash out a word--and neither can Photoshop.

It was in this spirit of keeping faith with history that the publisher of the New York Times cautioned the Pulitzer Prize Board this year against revoking the Pulitzer that had been awarded to Walter Duranty in 1932. Duranty was the Times's man in Moscow from 1921 to '34, and his career there was a case study in journalistic overcompensation. Before Duranty, the Times had humiliated itself trying to cover the USSR. Editorial writer Karl Meyer, in a brief 1990 essay on Duranty in the Times, recalled a famous postrevolution article by Walter Lippmann and Charles Merz that pointed out the Times "had reported the state's collapse, or imminent collapse, on 91 occasions in two years." The Times's problem, they argued, was "seeing not what was, but what men wished to see." It was the victim of its own "boundless credulity, an untiring readiness to be gulled, and on many occasions a downright lack of common sense."

The Times sent Duranty to Moscow to do better. A long article by Douglas McCollam in the November/December 2003 Columbia Journalism Review quotes Duranty as later recalling that he'd arrived "viciously anti-Bolshevik" but had soon concluded that the Soviets were "sincere enthusiasts trying to regenerate a people who had been shockingly misgoverned." As he liked to say, "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs." Duranty lived large in Moscow, entertaining lavishly, and competitors whined that Stalin had him in his pocket.

Meyer, who was responding to a 1990 biography called Stalin's Apologist, said Duranty's sin was intellectual: "He succumbed to a thesis. Having bet his reputation on Stalin, he strove to preserve it by ignoring or excusing Stalin's crimes. He saw what he wanted to see."

But Duranty won the Pulitzer for a series of articles examining the first five years of "Stalinism," a word he apparently coined. At the time the judges praised his "scholarship, profundity, impartiality, sound judgment and clarity." No one would now, and the Pulitzer Board just spent six months deciding whether the Pulitzer should be revoked. McCollam tells us Duranty's pieces "are flawed in many respects, but overall seem sound, and even include notes of moral condemnation rarely found elsewhere in his work." A harsher verdict was returned earlier this year by Columbia University historian Mark von Hagen, whom the Times asked to review Duranty's entire 1931 output, not simply the nominated stories. Von Hagen concluded the work was "cynical in tone and apologist in purpose and effect."

But though McCollam observes that in the executive corridor where the Times displays its Pulitzer winners, a note by Duranty's portrait says, "Other writers in the Times and elsewhere have discredited this coverage," it's not the coverage that won Duranty a Pulitzer that he's being damned for. In 1933 Duranty denied the existence of the Ukrainian famine in which five million to ten million people died. Stalin's collectivization policy, enforced by marauding troops, was behind the famine, and Duranty, still in Moscow and relying on Kremlin sources, attacked the credibility of reporters who'd slipped into Ukraine and described what they saw.

McCollam writes that in his earlier reporting, Duranty might simply have been playing the familiar game of pulling punches in order to stay where he was and go on writing anything at all. But with his famine coverage "he allowed himself to become a vehicle of Soviet propaganda." That coverage led Ukrainian-Canadian and Ukrainian-American groups to launch this year's crusade to revoke Duranty's Pulitzer.

The Times could formally renounce the prize. It hasn't. And last July, when the paper forwarded von Hagen's report to the Pulitzer Board, it attached a cautionary note from publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. He called Duranty's work "slovenly" and told the board that the Times would go along with whatever the board decided, but he wondered if it wanted to imitate the "Stalinist practice to airbrush purged figures out of official records and histories."

This was a comparison that von Hagen, in a letter published in the Times, said was ludicrous. "Airbrushing was intended to suppress the truth about what was happening under Stalin," he wrote. "The aim of revoking Walter Duranty's prize is to do the opposite: to bring greater awareness of the potential long-term damage that his reporting did for our understanding of the Soviet Union."

On November 21 the board announced that Duranty's Pulitzer would stand--though not for the reason Sulzberger suggested. Its statement called the famine "horrific" but noted that Duranty had won the Pulitzer for other coverage. "Measured by today's standards," that work "falls seriously short," said the board, but "there was not clear and convincing evidence of deliberate deception, the relevant standard in this case. Revoking a prize 71 years after it was awarded under different circumstances, when all principals are dead and unable to respond, would be a momentous step and therefore would have to rise to that threshold."

It might have been the best call. If we're going to understand Stalinism we need to remember not just the so-called useful idiots (a phrase attributed to Lenin) who sugarcoated it but the esteem in which some of those idiots were held in the West. So long as Duranty's award stands it's a notorious symbol of that folly. The Pulitzer Board had debated revoking it back in 1990 and no doubt will one day have to debate it again.

I called Sig Gissler, the Pulitzer Board's administrator, and asked what "revoking" the Pulitzer was supposed to entail anyway. Would Gissler have asked for the prize money back? Was a plaque in an attic somewhere supposed to be boxed up and returned?

Gissler refused to answer. He told me everything about the board's deliberations was confidential--that there'd been any kind of statement at all was extraordinary. I took this to mean the board had been kicking around the idea of revocation without a clear idea of what would follow if the board decreed it. What follows now is easy to predict: like any running sore, it will go on driving the board and the paper nuts.

The Times should move Duranty's portrait into its newsroom and inscribe a notice to the next Jayson Blair: "No prize is worth our honor."

While I had Gissler on the phone I asked him a second question: would the Pulitzer Board be more open to reconsidering a sin of omission than a sin of commission? In 1977 the board that oversaw the Pulitzers--at that time it was called the advisory board--refused to give a prize to A River Runs Through It, a book that has never been out of print, has sold more than a million copies, has been translated into a dozen languages, and was turned into a movie.

The author was Norman Maclean, a retired professor at the University of Chicago who'd never published a book before. The University of Chicago Press was the publisher. The jury that recommended him for a Pulitzer Prize was chaired by Herman Kogan, book editor of the Chicago Sun-Times.

The folks on the advisory board weren't born yesterday.

The famous name on the three-person jury belonged to short-story writer Jean Stafford, but she'd suffered a stroke during the judging and was unable to produce a list of choices. So the decision was left to Kogan and Maurice Dolbier, a critic for the Providence Journal. They ranked and submitted three titles. The unanimous first choice--if you call two people agreeing unanimity--was A River Runs Through It. "Its qualities are copious," Kogan wrote in his cover letter. "Its title story and the two others in it are derived from Mr. Maclean's experiences as a young man growing up and working in logging camps in the early part of the century in the western Rocky Mountains. The range of emotions and insights is broad and compelling and its concern with life in all its aspects has, despite the narratives' specific time and place, a sense of the universal."

The other two books nominated were October Light by John Gardner and The Franchiser by Stanley Elkin.

The advisory board decided there would no Pulitzer awarded for fiction that year.

"Herman was absolutely beside himself," recalls his son Rick Kogan, who writes for the Tribune. "He had known Norman a very long time, but it was certainly not a matter of cronyism."

The Pulitzer administrator explained in the New York Times that it had been a "thin year" for fiction and no book "was clearly leading the pack." Clayton Kirkpatrick, then editor of the Chicago Tribune and a member of the advisory board, told the Times that the nominees "were not as distinguished as we would have liked."

This remark caught the eye of one of Kirkpatrick's reporters. John Maclean was both a Washington correspondent for the Tribune and Norman Maclean's son. He immediately wrote Kirkpatrick, someone he greatly admired. "If the Times quoted you correctly about the lack of 'distinguished' entries, I am saddened," he wrote. "There may be no grave injustice in denying the prize to 'A River Runs Through It and Other Stories' by Norman Maclean, my father. It was a first work and of short stories at that. Few books get so far with those drawbacks.

"But the book overcame other obstacles as well. East Coast publishers refused to touch it. They didn't think a book with trees in it would interest readers. Then the tiny University of Chicago press took it on as their first work ever of fiction. They are so small, though, that they cannot keep bookstores supplied.

"Despite all that, the book caught on. It outsells Saul Bellow's 'Humboldt's Gift' at the U of C Bookstore. Reviewers have praised its literary merit in major publications such as The New York Review of Books, the New York Times, Newsweek, Publishers Weekly, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Chicago Daily News and literally dozens of others. An exception was The Chicago Tribune, which ignored it.

"I recount this history because it seemed so unnecessary to have the book called undistinguished. I submit it has distinguished itself in many ways without the help of the Pulitzer, East Coast publishers or The Chicago Tribune."

Kirkpatrick is now retired and living in Glen Ellyn. Having suffered a couple of strokes, he doesn't recall the judging. But at some point he read A River Runs Through It, and he calls it "a hell of a good book." Another member of the advisory board in 1977 was Eugene Patterson, then editor of the St. Petersburg Times. Patterson doesn't remember if he'd read A River Runs Through It in 1977, but he's read it and he calls it "a wonderful book."

As Patterson remembers it, the issue wasn't whether some Chicago cabal was trying to put one over on the Pulitzer board. It was whether Maclean's book could be considered fiction. That's a fair question to have raised. The book's debt to Maclean's life is profound. The Pulitzer board had gone out on a limb that year, giving Alex Haley's Roots a Pulitzer in a "special category" since it didn't quite stand up to scrutiny as history. Roots was a cultural sensation the board probably thought it had to deal with. Maclean's book wasn't, and the board didn't.

Allen Fitchen, Norman Maclean's editor at the University of Chicago Press, has always called A River Runs Through It "autobiographical fiction." It deviates from history most noticeably in the death of the brother. "Norman's brother was beaten to death in an alley in Chicago, as far as I know, and there's no connection between that and what happens in the book." But he says the details are beside the point. "All you have to do is read the book, and you realize you're reading something more than a memoir or a documentary or a history. I'm not sure that I can spell out exactly what the differences are. I submit you know you're not reading the other genres I named."

The 1977 Pulitzer Prize for fiction remains unawarded. It wouldn't be airbrushing to acknowledge that time has more than proved the jurors right, and it's never too late to carry out their wishes. I asked Gissler whether the board could do such a thing.

"Those are hypothetical questions I don't get into," he said. If the Pulitzer Board wants to find out what it feels like to set something right, this is a place to start.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/AP-Wide World Photos, Joel Snyder.

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