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In My Words: History shows ‘alternative facts’ journalism can have real consequences

Tom Nelson, associate professor of communications, recently published a column in regional newspapers about the impact of "alternative facts" on journalism. 

The following column appeared recently in the Burlington Times-News, the Greensboro News & Record and the Greenville Daily Reflector. Views are those of the author and not necessarily of Elon University.


By Tom Nelson, associate professor of communications

Kellyanne Conway’s unfortunate remark about the Trump presidency having ‘alternative facts’ to those being reported by main stream news media is still the focus of comment even weeks after she voiced the idea.

Tom Nelson, associate professor of communications

​Conway’s ‘alternative facts’ remark, words most likely linked to spontaneity rather than mendacity, will follow her to her grave and, thanks to the internet, well beyond the grave into an eternity of mockery. She is not alone.

Consider the case of Walter Duranty. His ‘alternate facts’ journalism once appeared with frequency in the New York Times. He was, by the standards of his times and the Times, most definitely a journalist. But he wasn’t. Not at all. 

I am happy as an American to distance myself from Duranty, who was a British subject. He was quite the English dilettante and Americans often kowtow to effete Englishmen, perhaps explaining the willingness of the New York Times and others to ascribe journalistic credibility to Duranty. But Duranty wasn’t credible. He was craven.

Reporting from the nascent Soviet Union not long after Stalin wrangled control of power in that emerging communist state, Duranty took it on himself to investigate rumors of engineered starvation in the Ukraine area of the USSR. Millions were said to be dying of hunger in the Ukraine despite this area’s reputation as the breadbasket of Eurasia. Stalin’s manipulations were said to be withering the crops.

It turns out this was all true. Millions dying in the Ukraine of starvation to satisfy Joseph Stalin’s sick synthesis of psychological & ideological needs. Duranty, despite apologists who even now defend him, knew full well what was happening. But you would never know it if you read Duranty’s dismissive dispatches of "alternative facts" that the New York Times and other venues published with little to no vetting. Alternative facts that maintained there was no famine only spotty hunger pockets. 

Lest Duranty’s ‘alternative facts’ need even more validation than publication in the New York Times, ponder that Duranty actually received a Pulitzer Prize for these famine reports sieved through communist gauze. Recent scholarship reveals more and more of the nexus of cash, ideology and vanity that created the monstrous lies that culminated with publication in a world-class newspaper and a Pulitzer Prize. It is an award that to this day remains awkwardly in place.

Touted back in those days as a journalist, Duranty is now the archetype of an anti-journalist. His reports, stained by red in so many ways, skewed world opinion and left unblocked Stalin’s road to ruin for the people of the Ukraine. These are the facts — not the ‘alternative facts’. 

The dead of the Ukraine famine of the 1930s know a little something about "alternative facts" but they cannot speak to us.  They can, however, haunt us. And well they should.

Owen Covington,
3/8/2017 9:35 AM