The dedicated website of the George Polk Awards trumpets that the prize is "one of America's most coveted journalism honors-and probably its most respected." Bill Moyers and Russell Baker, among others, testify that the award means more to them than any other. The list of those cited since the award's inception in 1949 comprises a two-generation roll call of distinguished names in American journalism: Christiane Amanpour, Roger Angell, R.W. Apple, Homer Bigart, Jimmy Breslin, Walter Cronkite, Gloria Emerson, Frances FitzGerald, Thomas Friedman, David Halberstam, Seymour Hersh, Marguerite Higgins, Chet Huntley, Peter Jennings, John Kifner, Ted Koppel, Charles Kuralt, Joseph Lelyveld, Tony Lukas, Mary McGrory, Edward R. Murrow, Jack Newfield, Roger Rosenblatt, Morley Safer, Oliver Sacks, Harrison Salisbury, Sidney Schanberg, Daniel Schorr, Eric Severeid, Howard K. Smith, Red Smith, I.F. Stone, Nina Totenberg, and many others.
It is improbable that a George Polk Award will come to Jayson Blair, the former New York Times reporter exposed for fraudulently concocting all or important parts of more than two score of stories. It is even less likely that Blair's name will crown a journalism honor. An internal investigation disclosed that his frauds began not on the pages of the New York Times, but in the lies he told his employers about his biography and work. If telling falsehoods to his employers about his background now stands as the unheard alarm bell for Blair, then there is something critical that Blair and Polk share. Yet there remains a vital difference between Blair and Polk. Blair inflicted severe damage to the most respected news organization in American journalism. That damage, however, only indirectly affected journalism as a profession. George Polk's story, because of the awards given annually in his name and proudly held by scores of well-known journalists, brings discredit to the entire profession.
In one of the opening encounters of the Cold War, a civil war raged in Greece in 1948 between Communist insurgents and a government backed by the United States under the Truman Doctrine. George Polk manned the front lines of this conflict as the CBS radio correspondent in Greece. His reporting outraged both the Greek government and some of its U.S. sponsors. He also leveled criticism at the Communists and probed into the dangerous world of black marketeers. On May 16, 1948, Polk's body was found in Salonika Bay. He had been drugged, tied up, and shot in the head at close range.
His outraged colleagues demanded action by the U.S. government to find who had murdered Polk-and why. With U.S. prodding and assistance the Greek government investigated, as did a committee formed by his peers in the press headed by the revered Walter Lippmann. The official investigation eventually tied the murder to Greek Communists, although the only man convicted was at most an accomplice. The Lippmann Committee accepted this verdict. But there remains to this day, for good reason, dispute over the conduct of the investigation and the evidence employed for the conviction. The controversy forms the subject of at least three books published in the United States in the last 18 years. All of these make the circumstances of Polk's death the key to his life. Edmund Keeley, a Princeton professor, produced The Salonika Bay Murder: Cold War Politics and the Polk Affair. Elias Vlanton with Zak Mettger offered Who Killed George Polk: The Press Covers Up a Death in the Family. Vlanton described himself as a student of Greek-U.S relations and Mettger as a writer-editor. The account that received by far the greatest publicity, however, is The Polk Conspiracy, by journalist and human rights activist Kati Marton. At the time her work appeared, she was the wife of Peter Jennings of ABC.
Both The Salonika Bay Murder and Who Killed George Polk reflect solid work with a difficult body of evidence. The Polk Conspiracy offers a page-turning read and purports to resolve definitely the identity of Polk's murderer. Marton fingers a Greek rightist and deploys a cast of stark heroes and villains. None of the heroes outshines Polk. He was a "good and brave man," she writes, who "paid with his life for the high standards he set for himself and for his profession." The moral she draws from George Polk's life and death is that "The role of a journalist is never to 'get on the team,' nor to advance any official's agenda. Quite the contrary: a reporter's task is to get at the truth even if in the process he reveals things neither his own government nor the public really wants to know."