On Sunday, May 16, 1948, a Greek boatman found a body floating in Salonika Bay about 150 yards offshore. The body was bound hand and foot with 30 feet of coarse hemp rope. At the base of the skull was a hole from a high-velocity bullet.
The body was identified as that of George Polk, Middle East reporter for CBS. Ornery, a troublemaker, and a blond Errol Flynn look-alike, Polk would become martyred in death as a journalistic icon.
His murder created a sensation. He had been trying to meet with Communist guerrillas battling the Greek government. Debate roiled over whether principally the guerrillas or the regime killed him. Salonika trials reached verdicts, and blue-ribbon U.S. monitoring committees issued findings and reports. Yet the truth of the Polk case remains elusive, and periodically books appear hashing it over yet again.
Polk was elevated to the heights as the first journalistic victim of the Cold War. A year later an award was established in his name — perhaps journalism’s most coveted besides the Pulitzer — for those unearthing “myriad forms of scandal and deceit” and valuing “an important story more highly than personal safety.” The George Polk Award has gone to, among others, these luminaries in the media pantheon:
David Halberstam, Morley Safer, Frances FitzGerald, Harrison Salisbury, R.W. Apple, Gloria Emerson, Sydney Schanberg, Christine Amanpour, Homer Bigart, Walter Cronkite, Thomas Friedman, Seymour Hersh, Ted Koppel, Bill Moyers, Peter Jennings, Edward R. Murrow, Daniel Schorr and I.F. Stone.
This history is summarized here because of an article containing some of the most significant new information about Polk — a family acquaintance — since I first wrote about his case 48 years ago. It is devastating and raises serious questions about whether the award should bear his name.
World War II historian Richard Frank (“Downfall: the End of the Imperial Japanese Empire”) dissects Polk’s personal story, particularly his war years, in a piece last year in The Weekly Standard. He previously had offered it with no success to the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, The Washington Post, The New Republic, Harpers, Slate, the Wilson Quarterly, and The American Scholar.
If what Frank writes is even close to the truth (and his evidence seems overwhelming), George Polk was an impostor diligent in serially misrepresenting his war record.
Delving in Polk’s personal papers given to New York University, and working with other historians and archivists (notably at the National Archives and Navy Department’s Bureau of Aeronautics), Frank found for instance these bogus highlights in Polk’s careful contrivance:
Ross Mackenzie lives with his wife and Labrador retriever in the woods west of Richmond, Virginia. They have two grown sons, both Naval officers.
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