BROOKLYN – Three of the most distinguished journalists in American history – Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow, and Howard K. Smith – as well as New York Times columnist and prolific book author Thomas Friedman, and the duo that broke the Watergate scandal for the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, are among an eclectic few who over the past 65 years have won the Polk Award.
Dan Gillmor of PBS famously wrote in 2010, in his rebuke of fluff media awards that are based on cronyism and other questionable criteria, that the Polk is “one of only a couple of journalism prizes that means anything.” Ironically, the Polk winners mentioned herein are far more familiar to the public than the man for whom the award was created in 1948: George Polk.
Polk was an American journalist who worked for CBS News – at one point, for Murrow and for Smith – who was in Greece in 1948 covering the Civil War there, which started in 1946 between the conservative Greek government’s army, which was backed by the United States, and the communist rebels.
Concluded in 1949 with the government’s forces thwarting the rebellion, the Greek Civil War is widely considered the first significant post-WWII battle that was a portend to the decades-long Cold War that ensued. Polk was found dead – shot at point blank range – on May 16, 1948, and to this day there is great controversy about who killed him.
A few months following Polk’s death, the Polk Award was established in his honor, and 65 years later continues to be presented by the Polk Awards Center of Long Island University.
Two of the leading authors about Polk’s murder shared their thoughts with TNH. Elias Vlanton, who wrote Who Killed George Polk? (Temple Univ. Press, 2005) described the entire situation as “not only a Cold War tragedy,” but also “a cautionary tale about what happens when journalists abandon their principles in the name of political expediency.”
Polk’s death was “an early example of what has become a frequent event: trying to silence the message by silencing the messenger,” specifically referring to Gregory Staktopoulos as having been framed for the murder “and his life destroyed, while Polk’s murderers went free.”
Dr. Edmund Keeley, Emeritus Professor of English and Creative Writing and Emeritus Director of the Hellenic Studies Program at Princeton University wrote The Salonika Bay Murder: Cold War Politics and the Polk Affair (Princeton Univ. Press, 1990).
His colleague, Dr. John O. Iatrides, is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Southern Connecticut State University, co-authored an article last year about the Polk murder, which Iatrides shared with TNH and indicated that it represents their current thoughts about the matter.
Unlike Vlanton, who is more emphatic that some elements within the Greek government-United States-British alliance were culpable, Iatrides and Keeley attest that “we will probably never know who killed George Polk.”
Nonetheless, they, too, maintain that Staktopoulos was framed – the victim of a Greek government pressured by the United States to bring the guilty party to swift justice, which resulted in “his arrest and long detention in the basement of the Thessaloniki Asfaleia, where he was almost certainly subjected to physical and mental torture…he was tried and convicted on the basis of his own rambling and confused confession, which he was compelled to revise to suit the prosecution’s improvised case against him. The evidence presented at the trial failed to link the accused to the crime, was not corroborated by facts, and the defense made no attempt to challenge the prosecution’s case…” Subsequent appeals to declare Staktopoulos innocent – he was imprisoned in 1949, released in 1960, and died in 1998 – have failed. His widow has continued the appeals to exonerate his name.
On the 50th Anniversary of the Polk Awards, in 1999, Amy Goodman of the radio show Democracy Now hosted a panel to discuss Polk’s life and death, which included Polk’s brother, William, his cousin, George Price, Vlanton, NY Times Columnist James “Scotty” Reston, and Howard K. Smith.
Vlanton described the circumstances surrounding the murder as follows: Polk was stationed with his family in Athens, and planned to vacation in Northern Greece. It turned out that his family could not join him, so Polk decided to go alone.
His destination was Kavala, but a flooded airport caused him to head to Thessaloniki instead, close to where rebels were situated. Having criticized the Greek government, the rebels, as well as American and British foreign policy, Polk certainly had a lot of enemies, Vlanton said.
After two days in Thessaloniki, Polk disappeared, Vlanton said, but it was assumed he had gone into the mountains to interview rebel leaders. A week later, his body was found floating in Thessaloniki’s (Salonica) bay.
When the Greek government explained that Polk must have been killed by the communists, American journalists decided to conduct their own investigation, Vlanton said, but did not follow through thoroughly.
To that end, William Polk added that the American government put pressure on journalists not to dig into the matter too deeply, lest it detract from the ultimate goal of winning the war.
Price, who had worked for the New York Daily News but was fired from there in 1955 for refusing to testify before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee – a component of and prevalent during the height of McCarthyism – said when he first find out that his cousin was missing, he believed that Polk would resurface.
As the days passed, he began to imagine the worst and knew something had to be done. He was part of the Newsmen’s Commission to Investigate the Murder of George Polk, which he described as “the working press,” as opposed to the more official investigating committee, the Overseas Writers’ Association, headed by Walter Lippmann, which Price said represented the media executives – publishers and editors.
Lippmann was a highly-respected Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, perhaps best associated with coining the term “Cold War.” But to Price, Lippmann was “an agent of the State Department.” The Lippmann Committee concluded that Polk indeed had been murdered by the Communists.
In 1990, Joseph C. Harsh, then along with James Reston the only surviving Committee member (both have died since), wrote that “there can be no doubt from evidence known today that some members of the American Embassy in Athens and in the United States consulate in Salonika helped the Greek government set up the ‘Communist’ explanation of the murder.
It is clear that they did not give [Committee Counsel William] Donovan full help in exploring other possible explanations.” Harsh also wrote that “Lippmann was quoted later as saying that, ‘my personal opinion is that Polk’s murder was planned by the Cominform and was carried out by the Communist Party of Greece,’” but that neither he (Harsh) nor Reston would have ever made such a statement.
Unlike Price, however, who implied that Lippmann was a puppet for the State Department, Harsh concluded that Lippmann’s determination was grounded in his absolute faith in Donovan’s investigation. Harsh questions only the thoroughness of that investigation, not any deception on Lippmann’s part.
More diplomatically, Reston in the Democracy Now interview distinguished the “legmen” – the reporters on the beat of which he was part – and the editors, who had the “desk jobs.”
Smith, famous for his integrity and objectivity, considered one of the pillars of American journalism and selected for the grand task of moderating the first ever major party presidential debate (between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960, said that he was discouraged by CBS to cover Polk’s death in Thessaloniki for his own protection: “There is room for another corpse and you seem to be a candidate,” his employers told him, he said.
Moreover, Smith realized the irony of Polk’s death having led to near-unanimous support of the Greek government – seen as the combatants of Polk’s murderers – though Polk had been critical of the government as well as the rebels.
Nonetheless, Smith did not believe journalists were stifled from expressing their independence, but Price disagreed, relaying his experience regarding the Senate hearings, which Goodman described as “witch hunts.”
Price said “they were on a wild goose chase, picking on little things I did,” such as having signed a petition to save Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the couple found guilty of delivering the atomic nuclear bomb secrets to the Soviet Union, and were subsequently executed.
The 2013 Polk Awards will be presented on April 11 to 30 recipients from 15 news organizations, including journalists who broke the NSA security leaks stories, as well as Bridgegate, the scandal involving members of N.J. Governor Chris Christie’s administration.
William Polk, a distinguished academician who taught at numerous institutions, including Harvard University and the University of Chicago, authored several books as well, including Polk’s Folly – about his family, the Polk Family, which has an illustrious history in the United States, spanning several hundred years, and numerous famous members – most notably, the 11th American president, James Knox Polk.
Ironically, though George Polk might have had many enemies, President Polk did not: he pledged to serve only one term, and kept his word. Because his political rivals knew that he would not seek reelection, they concentrated their efforts on his likely successors, and actually left him to the job of serving as president. Not surprisingly, without the daily ordeal of battling political opposition, he did his job very well, according to a wide consensus of presidential historians.