Green Room

The Spirit Of Walter Duranty

posted at 12:05 pm on June 3, 2010 by

In the 1930’s, New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty earned himself a place in literary infamy by whitewashing Stalin’s forced famine of Ukraine.

Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias can at least take comfort in the fact that their junketeering whitewash of China’s authoritarian assaults on human rights has historical precedent, but will probably not lead to a Pulitzer that gets contested fifty years after their deaths:

Klein and Yglesias’ group was taken to tour a spanking-new village built on the outskirts of the northern city of Dalian. As Yglesias describes it, “back in 2006 the former “village” of rudimentary structures was razed and the government constructed a large and extremely nice park (it’s in a very scenic area), reforested the hillsides, and constructed a series of apartment complexes. The former villagers now live in modest but up-to-date structures.” But don’t worry about the forcibly displaced, Yglesias admonishes us, because, “[w]e spoke to one retired couple who was given four apartments—they live in one and rent out the other three to families who’ve either moved out to Cha’an from the central city or else moved to the area from less prosperous regions of China. The town’s current party boss said he was given five apartments.” Klein’s coverage on the website of the Washington Post was equally credulous. He informed his audience, “A conversation with some residents revealed that they didn’t just get one free apartment in the new building. They got four free apartments, three of which they were now renting out. And medical coverage. And money for furnishings. And a food stipend. And — I’m not kidding, by the way — birthday cakes on their birthdays. Sweet deal.”

The problem is, it’s not a “sweet deal” for most of the millions of Chinese displaced by development projects every years.  China has no real concept of private property; every hovel is considered state property, for the state to destroy as needed for any reason.

Big hydroelectric dam?  Millions relocated (with no documentary evidence of “sweet deals”).  Beijing holds the Olympics?  Over a million relocated.


Yglesias and Klein are on a junket managed and staged by a public relations firm based in Hong Kong called the China-United States Exchange Foundation. While the firm claims on its website it is a “non-government” organization, it would be impossible for it to operate without strictures imposed by the Chinese government. China has no concept of freedom of the press, and there is simply no way that the Beijing government would tolerate a group of American journalists traveling around the country with impunity. In other words, Yglesias, Klein, and their “fellow travelers” are being shown precisely what the Beijing government wants them to see. It is a non-governmental tour in name only. The fact that Klein and Yglesias report back on such obviously staged scenes without a hint of doubt raises serious doubts about their journalistic competence. The “sweet deal” that Klein alluded to above is obviously too – in fact, sickly – sweet. It is plainly obvious to anyone who knows a whit about China that they were visiting a stage-managed potemkin village.

The “Potemkin Village” – named after a Czarist minister who built a fake village to show Western visitors how well the Russian serfs were being treated (they were treated like slaves elsewhere in Russia) – is a great totalitarian tradition; dictators build a really, really nice demonstration of something controversial, to show how benign, even wonderful, it is.  Hitler even built a “Potemkin” concentration camp, Theresienstadt, to show visiting human rights dignitaries and, one presumes, the 1940’s anscestors of Klein and Yglesias, how good concentration camp inmates had it.

Sad to say, they bought it back then, too.

Leftyblogs:  Speaking “sweet deal” to power.

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“Free” stuff! Sweet!

Jeezus, what lost little idiots.

rrpjr on June 3, 2010 at 12:56 PM

Useful idiots. With the emphasis on “idiots”.

rbj on June 3, 2010 at 1:13 PM

Apparently it hasn’t occurred to these kowtowing dolts that it’s a “sweet deal” to get a birthday cake – as long as it isn’t to celebrate the birthday of a Chinese daughter.

Buy Danish on June 3, 2010 at 2:49 PM

dim-witted attempt to make a comparison without there being a real one available.

terrible high-school level post by Berg.

audiculous on June 3, 2010 at 3:40 PM


OK, let’s dispense with the ad-homina…

…well, that leaves you with no comment at all.

The comparison is real; Yglesias and Klein are being “useful idiots”, the same as the duped visitors to Theresienstadt and Potemkin’s villages. They are (wittingly or not) carrying the water for a whitewash of a human rights debacle.

Mitch_Berg on June 3, 2010 at 4:10 PM

No, Mitch, the comparison is awful. Neither part of the comparison works.

The displacement is China is not good, but it’s nothing at all like the Stalinist actions.

And Klein doesn’t sound like Duranty……

I’ll have some further thoughts on China in the coming days, but there are two things to say in advance of that. First, it’s a big and complicated country, and my observations are just that: my observations. They’re not definitive judgments. Instead, they come from things I saw and people I talked to and books I’ve read. I was lucky to get a chance to go to China — which also gave me a chance to think and read about China — and my posts here are an attempt to share a bit of what I learned from the experience.

That said, my trip was organized by a group that’s sympathetic to the Chinese government, which meant we met with a lot of government officials. But meeting with Chinese government officials is, for Western journalists, a fairly ineffective form of propaganda: They don’t tell you anything, and so it’s hard for them to influence your thinking on much. What did influence my thinking a lot was a book I read, Susan Shirky’s “Fragile Superpower,” and some of the interviews I did with ex-pats and businessmen and academics. Check back tomorrow for an interview with one of them.

and neither does Yglesias sound like Duranty……

Probably the two most-common experiences I had on my trip to China were either being taken to see some fancy, modern, and impressive brand-new thing and being told by official or quasi-official Chinese elites that the thing I had to understand about China was how unrepresentative all that stuff was. Since the trip was itself being directed by quasi-official elites, it all struck me as fairly paradoxical.

In China, people want you to know that their country still faces enormous problems, but they don’t really want to show you those problems.

Duranty spent something like 14 years in Russia and wrote things that were found to be falsified and unfailingly favorable to Stalin.
These guys went on a tour for a couple of weeks.

Your attempt at comparison is ludicrous… and you’re in no position to decry personal attacks after having posted this silly attempt at personally attacking Klein and Yglesias.

audiculous on June 3, 2010 at 4:54 PM

My Darling audiculous,

Stalin never displaced anyone? Or are you saying we have to catalogue every single action by the Chinese to make a fair comparison with Stalin? Cos we can start up any old time you’re ready. That Yglesias and Klein are even acccepting this blood-money in the form of quid pro quo amply demonstrates their stance.

fronclynne on June 3, 2010 at 5:03 PM


I’m saying that Stalin deliberately starved to death (ten or more) millions of people to facilitate the removal of the remainder.
If you can demonstrate that the Chinese government is currently acting in a comparable manner, please do.
Im educable.

Please don’t think that my rejection of Berg’s nonsense comparison implies that I approve the Chinese government, but I’ll be quite surprised to see evidence that comparable and enormous numbers of Chinese citizens are being done to death at present.

audiculous on June 3, 2010 at 5:27 PM

The comparison Berg is making is of Klein and Yglesias with Duranty when faced with Potemkin stage management, not of the number of innocent people incarcerated and slaughtered by Stalin versus by the Hu Jintao government of China.

The comparison is accurate, based on my reading of Klein/Ygelsias’ credulous spouting of every line they were fed while in China.

Just to take one example: If they were reporting on the assignment of apartments in a new housing complex in, say, Atlanta, they’d be on the warpath about a political party boss being given 5 apartments when others were only given 4. Their radar would go up and they’d be on the prowl for the poor sods who got only 3,2,1, or NO apartments, and had had to move in with their relatives in a 2-room shack with the bathroom down the street because their old living quarters were razed by the government.

But they show no such skepticism and determination when being told happy-face narratives in China. No hint of suspicion that the view they’re being given is one-sided and incomplete seems to temper their coverage.

That’s Durantyism. There’s no standard that says the Potemkin displays and the sugar-coating have to involve the exact circumstances of the Stalin purges and terrors.

J.E. Dyer on June 3, 2010 at 6:03 PM


What JE said.

The comparison is between unskeptical, un”journalist”ic, credulous reporters re-hashing what their hosts and ideological third cousins want them to rehash.

There is no doubt that Duranty covered up worse crimes – horrors, really – and that his own moral crimes were orders of magnitude worse than Yglesias and Klein’s skin-deep cheerleading.

But that wasn’t the point! If it had been, the title would have been “Ezra Klein And Matt Yglesias Are The Same As Walter Duranty”.

You get the distinction, right?

You have to go back a generation before Matt and Ezra were born to find “journalists” covering up Mao’s Stalin-level crimes against humanity…

Mitch_Berg on June 3, 2010 at 6:44 PM

J.E. Dyer, thanks for your opinion.

I don’t mind that you’re wrong about what Durantyism entails. That’s OK.

No hint of suspicion that the view they’re being given is one-sided and incomplete seems to temper their coverage.

I do mind a little that you failed to read that both Klein and Yglesias explicitly wrote that they knew that they had been presented with an incomplete picture and that the presentation was designed to show them what the government wanted them to see.
I posted quotations and links, JED, but…

Thanks, anyway.

audiculous on June 3, 2010 at 10:31 PM

Mitch, see above…. keep trying… narrow your claims enough and we’ll find some common ground.

and remind JED that Duranty spent those 14 years on the beat and presented himself as uniquely qualified to explain the deeper truth of Russian events….and spent years offering misconstrued and even falsified info…..willfully…..

JED writes so well and is so enamored of her opinions that she sometimes forgets to extend her analysis to those facts that don’t fit her analysis, sometimes, I suspect, almost….. willfully.

audiculous on June 3, 2010 at 10:38 PM

No Aud, my point stands just fine. It merely violates (I’ll be charitable) some internal template you have on what this sort of story is supposed to say.

Don’t like it? Write your own.

Oh, wait. You have.

Mitch_Berg on June 4, 2010 at 8:57 AM

This post has been promoted to

Comments have been closed on this post but the discussion continues here.

Ed Morrissey on June 4, 2010 at 1:51 PM

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