No Dictatorship, No Story: The New York Times Buries an Interview with Nobel Laureate Imre Kertész

2014. december 17. 09:38

After sending a reporter to Budapest to conduct a lengthy interview with Nobel laureate Imre Kertész, the New York Times decides to bury it. Times reporter David Streitfeld's account of the interview and his questions to Kertész differ significantly from the accounts given by the other three people who were in the room during the conversation - including that of Imre Kertész. Rather strange.

It was 4 p.m., July 20th, 2013, when David Streitfeld, a reporter for the New York Times arrived at the Budapest home of Imre Kertész, the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 2002. Magda Kertész, the writer's wife, tells Mandiner that Streitfeld spent at least an hour and a half talking to her husband. The interview, however, was not published, and they never heard from the reporter again.

News of the encounter did not become public until an English-language journal, the Hungarian Quarterly, published a special issue paying tribute to the memory of the Hungarian Holocaust and Imre Kertész mentioned the unpublished NYT interview to the journal:

“Last summer a reporter came from the New York Times to do an interview with me. He asked what I thought of the situation in Hungary. I replied that the situation was fine, that I felt fine, and he was surprised. He seemed to have the impression that I felt threatened, given the political mood...

And the question was not sincere. He thought I was going to speak out against Hungary, or Hungary today or something. And I didn't. He had come with the intention of getting me to say that Hungary is a dictatorship today, which it isn't. That only means that he has no idea what a dictatorship is. If you can write, speak openly, openly disagree, even leave the country, it is absurd to speak of dictatorship. And this is what I said. I am not pleased with everything happening in Hungary today, I do not think there was ever a time when I was pleased with everything happening here, but certainly Hungary is no dictatorship. This is empty, ideological language, to call Hungary a dictatorship today! And the interview was never published. Which a friend of mine very accurately said is a kind of censorship, if someone gives an answer you don't expect, then you don't publish it.”

The story made headlines once the Hungarian Quarterly interview was published in Hungarian in the November 2014 issue of Szombat (or, Sabbath), a Jewish political and cultural magazine. Anita Kőműves, a writer for the leading political daily, Népszabadság, reached the NYT reporter for comment. “We only talked briefly," said Streitfeld. “[Kertész] said he was consumed by his ill health and was not participating in Hungarian life or politics...I did not use the word dictatorship in any way, shape or form.”

Joseph Kahn, deputy editor-in-chief of the New York Times, also commented on the issue for the liberal weekly, Magyar Narancs. “Correspondents interview more people and consult more sources in the course of their reporting than they cite or quote in the resulting article, which is a distillation not a transcript," said Kahn. “The process of deciding what to include in the final article is in no way comparable to censorship. It is the process of journalism.”

Clearly, Streitfeld's account contradicts Kertész's version of what happened that afternoon. Furthermore the editor-in-chief of the Hungarian Quarterly, Thomas Cooper, who conducted the interview with Kertész for the quarterly, was also present on July 20th as the interpreter. He has not challenged Kertesz's account of the NYT interview and what the writer discussed with Streitfeld.

Several weeks after the NYT reporter traveled to Budapest to interview Kertesz, the Times made reference to the Nobel laureate in an article entitled, "An Opera Fights Hungary’s Rising Anti-Semitism," published October 20, 2013. But the story made no reference to what Kertész told the paper in the exclusive interview in July. Instead it cited remarks he had made to the Guardian one and a half years earlier. “Last year," the Times wrote, "Imre Kertesz, Hungary’s Nobel Laureate novelist, compared Mr. Orban to the Pied Piper and said democracy had never fully taken root in Hungary.”

Magda Kertész set up the appointment for the interview with Streitfeld and was present for the conversation. I reached out to Mrs. Kertész and through phone and email correspondence, she added a number of interesting details.

Mrs. Kertész asked the NYT's reporter to come to Budapest for two days, in case her husband's health condition was not suitable for an interview on the given day.

According to her recollection, Streitfeld asked twice about whether there is a dictatorship in Hungary and if Mr. Kertész fears for his life as a Jew living in Budapest. Imre Kertész replied that there is no dictatorship in Hungary, nor does he fear for his life in Budapest. In his replies, the Holocaust survivor noted that he has some close, personal experience with life under a dictatorship.

At the conclusion of the one-and-a-half hour conversation, Streitfeld did not mention that he needed more time or would like to continue the conversation the next day. He did not inform Kertész that the interview would not be published. Imre and Magda Kertész later tried to contact the NYT through different channels to inquire about the interview but without success. Magda Kertész, who holds dual citizenship in Hungary and the United States, said she would not have expected such treatment from the New York Times.

Over the past several weeks, I have tried repeatedly to reach Messrs. Streitfeld and Kahn for further comment but have received no reply. Should they choose to comment, I will update this article with their reply. Streitfeld has an audio recording of the interview, so he has a record of the length of the conversation and whether it included any mention of dictatorship.

 

Timeline

July 2013: New York Times reporter David Streitfeld visits the Kertész family’s home in Budapest.
October 2013: The NYT cites Imre Kertész but makes no reference to the July interview and instead refers to Kertész comments reported in an earlier article in the Guardian.
May 2014: Thomas Cooper, editor of the Hungarian Quarterly, interviews Imre Kertész.
September 2014: The Hungarian Quarterly's special issue is published, quoting Kertész's comments about the NYT interview.
November 2014: Szombat magazine publishes the Quarterly's interview in Hungarian.

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(Our illustration was made with modification of Huffington Post's NYT-cover photo and using the photo of Gábor Valuska for Könyves Blog.)

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