The New York Times’ Worst Pulitzer Prize Winners
A selection of the least deserving recipients of the award
by Ashley Rindsberg
Nikole Hannah-Jones received a Pulitzer for her controversial 1619 project
As is now customary with Pulitzer Prize announcements, readers were greeted with a deluge of self-congratulatory and preening articles by the media about their various successes. But for all the glitz and glamor associated with journalism’s most famous award, not all previous winners have been so illustrious.
At this point, the New York timeit almost received twice as many Pulitzers as its nearest competitor, the Washington Post (a statistic that in itself should raise some questions). As a result, many of the newspaper’s most high-profile Pulitzer victories illustrate not only how often the Pulitzer Center gets it wrong, but, more importantly, its intransigence in the face of calls for the return of ill-gotten awards.
Below are some of the most egregious examples of New York Times Pulitzers that should never have been awarded and still haven’t been rescinded.
1. Walter Duranty — Soviet Russia, 1932
Walter Duranty received a Pulitzer Prize for his work denying the reality of the Ukrainian famine, a genocide created by Stalin. In 2003, the Ukrainian-American community launched calls for New York Times to return the Pulitzer, a call endorsed by a historical consultant the newspaper hired to do an independent assessment.
Despite this, the newspaper’s publisher refused to return the award – and the Pulitzer Center agreed. After studying the matter for six months, the Center decided not to cancel the Duranty Pulitzer, saying 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 World War II, 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 launch his campaign of conquest in Europe.
It was no coincidence. Rather, it was part of a Nazi-led propaganda blitz called Operation Himmler, a ploy that Tolischus unflinchingly bought off. At this crucial moment, in the lead story of that day’s edition of The New York Times, Tolischus printed Hitler’s entire speech to the Reichstag justifying his invasion of Poland. He reported no word of response from a Polish official.
3. William Laurence — the atomic bomb, 1946
In the late 1930s, William Laurence reported extensively on advances in nuclear technology. His reports were brilliant and incisive, the writing clear and bold. But then his reporting stopped. It turns out his reporting was so brilliant that the United States government hired him to write propaganda regarding its fledgling nuclear weapons project. Laurence would toe the government line and, in turn, he would become 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 to deny the existence of radiation sickness. The US War Department needed funding to expand its nuclear program, and that meant convincing Americans that they had nothing to fear from this device. Laurence spoke out, not only denying radiation sickness in her own reporting, but denying the reporting of other reporters who had learned firsthand about the horrors of radiation poisoning.
4. Frederick Birchall – the rise of the Nazis, 1934
In the run-up to the Berlin Olympics – another propaganda blitz by Nazi leaders – Frederick Birchall worked hard to assure readers of the New York Times that German leaders (who would enact the Nuremberg Laws two months later and had spent a decade persecuting Jews and other minorities) “pledged that there would be no racial 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 received a Pulitzer Prize “for unbiased reporting from Germany”.
5. David Halberstam – Vietnam
David Halberstam was the New York Times‘ brash and intelligent correspondent in Vietnam in the early days of the war. Along with his successor, Neil Sheehan, Halberstam worked vigorously to achieve what he believed to be the only way forward for the American war in Southeast Asia – the overthrow of the South Vietnamese government led by Ngo Dinh Diem.
To make his point, Halberstam published a series of unsourced reports alleging widespread dissatisfaction with Diem, relying heavily on a source who would later be exposed as a North Vietnamese spy, and published false accounts of the alleged brutality of the Diem government. In one instance, Halberstam reported that the Diem government massacred 30 Buddhist monks, reinforcing an emerging storyline about the violent suppression of Buddhism by the Catholic Diem. It turns out, however, that no monks were killed that day, which 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 journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, sought to “reframe” American history, rooting its foundation in slavery rather than freedom. But to achieve this 180-degree revision, Hannah-Jones had to make statements that outraged historical scholars – including those consulted by the Time himself.
The most fundamental claims made by the 1619 Project have been refuted by a wide range of historians. This included dubious claims that slavery made the North wealthy, that Abraham Lincoln was a racist in abolitionist garb, and that all white people benefited from slavery. But the most glaring claim made by the star reporter was also the keystone of the project – that the American Revolution was waged to preserve slavery. The Northwestern University African American history professor that the Time operated 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 received a 2021 Pulitzer for its “courageous” reporting on the Covid-19 pandemic, an odd decision given the Time was disproportionately responsible for the unfounded campaign to discredit lab leakers, the theory that the virus emerged from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Ashley Rindsberg is an investigative journalist and author of The Gray Lady Winked: How The New York Times’ Misrepresentations, Distortions, And Fabrications Radically Alter History.