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The Unanswered Case
Against George Polk

Why are journalists turning a blind eye to fraud?

12:00 AM, Apr 13, 2007 • By RICHARD B. FRANK
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HAVING AVOIDED the actual case I presented, William Polk argues that this evidence in no way impeaches George Polk's work as a journalist. He does not address the question I posed in February: Knowing these facts about George Polk, who would have hired him as a journalist? If an editor really believed that the documented records of George Polk's calculated frauds and forgeries would cast no shadow whatsoever over Polk's subsequent work as a journalist, then the editor would have no principled reason to deny Polk employment on the basis of his past history. I am not aware of any American journalist who has gone on record in response to this question. I would infer that American journalists, like Americans in general, would immediately realize that answering my question in the affirmative would be indefensible for the profession and answering in the negative would expose the sophistry of William Polk's argument.

The evidence that CBS set a great store by George Polk's wartime service is patent. George Polk's papers reflect that his reporting was indeed challenged during his lifetime. The response to those challenges was provided by Larry Lesueur who extolled Polk as "a wartime Navy fighter pilot twice wounded over Guadalcanal" who has "no political bias." After Polk's death, Edward R. Morrow as well as other journalists, emphasized Polk's invented wartime heroics. I believe the fact that Lesueur seized upon Polk's invented exploits as evidence of his good character to rebut challenges to the accuracy of his reporting clearly reflects that CBS viewed Polk's accounts as important. William Polk argues that his brother's invented feats in the navy did not figure importantly in their opinion of him. Thus, William Polk effectively avers that when confronted with a challenge to the credibility of his brother, CBS summoned not the most persuasive argument it could muster, but instead chose to answer critics with facts its managers regarded as a minor or trivial part of Polk's background.

What the response from CBS does demonstrate, however, is that Polk's colleagues failed to detect during his lifetime, or after his death, that they did not know who George Polk really was. Without grasping what they were really dealing with, his colleagues failed to give Polk's reporting the scrutiny it should have received. To argue now that this failure of his colleagues somehow generates a presumption of credibility on behalf of an individual who performed such documented frauds is to stand logic on its head.

And there is obvious evidence that Polk's inventions extended to his reporting. Just before George Polk was murdered, he told his wife and another friend that an anonymous source working at the Chase Bank in Manhattan had informed him that the Greek foreign minister had just illegally transferred funds into an account at the Chase Bank. After Polk's death, no trace of such a communication or the bank account emerged and there was no further trace of the alleged anonymous source. William Polk says this does not reflect ill on George Polk's reporting since this was merely a "tip" his brother was "checking out" like a responsible journalist, not a story he published. According to the account provided by George Polk, however, he confronted the Greek foreign minister with this information and threatened to ruin him with exposure of the story. (This incidentally is no obscure episode in Polk's career. In her work on Polk's murder, Kati Marton presents this event as the immediate catalyst to George Polk's murder.) So in William Polk's view, his brother confronting the Greek foreign minister and threatening the minister with ruin with an unconfirmed story falls into the category of "checking out" a "tip." I would expect that few others would cast so benign an interpretation over this conduct.

While I expect that any journalist who actually looks with an open mind at my article and the documentary evidence will recognize the George Polk committed the acts I describe, I suspect that many may lack a sense of context to grasp just how far Polk's invented version of his duties diverged from what he really did. The small number of navy fighter pilots who served at Guadalcanal, like their Marine comrades, were regarded by other veterans of the campaign and Americans in general as superheroes. These pilots usually entered combat outnumbered and flying technically inferior aircraft. Their skill and courage were awesome, but what set them apart even more in the eyes of others was their death rate. Just about one out of three was killed. They died horrible deaths: consumed by flames; dismembered by cannon or machine gun fire; or the lingering agonies of death by exposure when lost at sea or in the jungle. The death rate where George Polk served on Guadalcanal was literally only one-tenth as great: roughly 1 in 30. Every participant and every historian recognizes that George Polk's actual service was commendable, but it in no way approximated that of a navy fighter pilot.

I would urge all American journalists to reflect on the documentary evidence about George Polk's actual conduct and ask themselves if this conduct is consistent with the image the profession wishes to project to the world? Surely the profession can find many other worthy names to place on the award and stop the inevitable hemorrhage of credibility guaranteed by the continued use of the name George Polk.

Richard B. Frank, a historian of World War II, is the author of MacArthur (forthcoming), Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire, and Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle.