Maybe the Top Journalistic Deceit of All

Ross Mackenzie
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Posted: Jul 10, 2008 10:43 AM
Maybe the Top Journalistic Deceit of All

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:

— That Polk claimed to have shot down 11 Japanese aircraft in 1942 alone. Such a number would have made him the Navy’s “highest-scoring ace” that year — but the shootdowns are unconfirmed by any U.S. or Japanese records.

— That never having taken flight training — a Navy requirement for its coveted pilot’s wings — “Polk clearly acquired some golden wings, attached them to his uniform, and had himself photographed.” Frank continues: “Resplendent above his left breast pocket are the golden wings authorized only for a qualified naval aviator.”

— That letters in Polk’s papers alleging shootdowns, wounds and a Purple Heart are “patently fictitious.”

— That though Polk insisted he devastated the Japanese as a pilot based on Guadalcanal and Tulagi (an island, too small for an airstrip, north of Guadalcanal), Polk was in fact “a junior officer supervising aircraft servicing” at Guadalcanal’s Henderson Field. His job “involved fueling and fixing combat aircraft, not flying them.”

Frank presents much else regarding “Polk’s fabrication of a false account of his naval service that undermines his credibility as a journalist. . . . He did not merely spin a few verbal yarns about his exploits: He paraded around wearing the wings of a Navy pilot when he knew he was not one, and he forged documents to support his deceits.” For more, go to www.weeklystandard.com.

Deceptions of more recent journalistic vintage have featured Janet Cooke (The Washington Post), Jayson Blair (The New York Times), Jack Kelly (USA Today), and Mary Mapes and Dan Rather (CBS) fabricating stories about others. They came tumbling down, and properly so. In George Polk, if Richard Frank is right, we have a diligent conjurer of his own military resume at least. “Polk’s actual (military) service was admirable, but his later stories burgeoned into a fantastic deception.”

Franks concludes: “Journalism that exposes ‘myriad forms of scandal and deceit’ deserves to be honored. So do reporters who take risks seeking the truth. But to honor them in the name of George Polk is a travesty.”

He’s right. But just as a host of establishment-press media declined to publish Frank’s findings, don’t hold your breath until a committee of surviving George Polk Award recipients forms up to demand their award be given a nobler name.