Mass communication turns election campaigns into sound bite contests and makes millionaires of impudent paparazzi. But it also offers the press more opportunity to live up to the billing William Hazlitt gave the British journalist William Cobbett more than 175 years ago as "a kind of fourth estate." By unearthing myriad forms of scandal and deceit in the last half-century, reporters have assumed an increasingly vital role in alerting and, ultimately, in protecting the public.
Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in the list of winners of the George Polk Awards. Established by Long Island University in 1949 to memorialize the CBS correspondent slain covering a civil war in Greece, the George Polk Awards have become one of America's most coveted journalism honors - and probably its most respected. Russell Baker and Bill Moyers, among others, say the George Polk Award means more to them than any other prize. When Washington Post reporter Ronald Kessler won a George Polk Award for national reporting some years ago, his boss, Ben Bradlee, was taken aback because the Post hadn't even submitted Kessler's stories. "I can't believe it," Bradlee said on learning of the award. "We thought it was far and away the best thing we printed all year, but we didn't enter it because we felt it was not the kind of work that wins awards."
Some of the biggest names in journalism have won George Polk Awards -- 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 Sevareid, Howard K. Smith, Red Smith, I. F. Stone and Nina Totenberg.
So, too, have small-town reporters. Journalists from Bridgeport, Casper, Des Moines, Fairbanks, Fargo, Pittsfield and Spokane have won George Polk Awards. Recipients have been as highbrow as the London Times Literary Supplement or the New York Review of Books and as homespun as Redbook or Inside Edition.
And amid the prominent publications and broadcast outlets on the list are less obvious honorees - American Banker, the Amicus Journal, Amnesty International Report, Chemical & Engineering News, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Guam Cable Television, High Country News, the North Carolina Independent Weekly, Insurance Forum, National Thrift News, New Orleans CityBusiness, New Time Films, the Progressive and Southern Exposure. What all have accomplished, at least once, was superb reporting based on original investigation - exposing war crimes in Southeast Asia or Serbia, corruption in city halls or world capitals and cheats and hucksters who bilked the poor, abused power or endangered the public.
Announcement of the annual George Polk Award winners is publicized around the country, and sometimes the Award itself makes news by citing a controversial story or unusual outlet. In 1980, for example, after two inmates serving life sentences at the Angola, La., prison were honored for serious examinations of criminal justice issues and searing accounts of prison life in their magazine, the Angolite, the inmates' own story attracted front-page and prime-time attention. And a 1977 George Polk Award to the New England Journal of Medicine provided the first significant mainstream visibility for a publication that would achieve enormous attention and prestige in the ensuing decades.
It was two-time winner John Kifner of The New York Times who explained great battlefield reporting much the way the late House Speaker Thomas (Tip) O'Neill characterized politics. "All reporting is local," Kifner said. "I cover wars the way I used to cover cops." In that spirit, Polk Awards are not usually presented in the name of "investigative reporting." In the tradition of Polk, all good reporting is investigative. The exception was in 1973 when Seymour Hersh, the first five-time George Polk Award winner, won for his historic account of the My Lai massacre.
Occasionally a George Polk Award is given to someone better known outside the field of journalism. James Baldwin, William O. Douglas, Henry Louis Gates, Michael Harrington, Norman Mailer, Leo Rosten, Edward Sorel and Susan Sontag were Polk winners who expressed satisfaction that their work could be taken for reporting. The Award has been presented anonymously twice (to photographers whose identification might have jeopardized them), and three times posthumously - to a videographer killed in Guyana covering Jonestown; to John B. Oakes in 2001, who was to have received the 2000 Career Award at age 87; and Chauncey W. Bailey, Jr., in 2007, editor of the Oakland Post, who was gunned down while in the midst of investigating a local business.
A special George Polk Award for career accomplishment, first presented in 1978 to Carey McWilliams, founder of The Nation magazine, has honored such legendary figures as Murray Kempton, James Reston, George Seldes, William Shirer, William Shawn and Fred Friendly. Some were less obvious - sports broadcaster Red Barber, Washington photographer George Tames, St. Louis editorialist Richard Dudman and New York Times obituary writer Alden Whitman among them.
The integrity and continuity of the selection process gives the George Polk Award special cachet that has helped make it a reporter's award. Winners in about a dozen categories are named each year from among hundreds of nominees referred by a panel of advisors (including many prior recipients) and submitted by reporters or their news organizations. Final judging is done by educators and communicators, who are members of Long Island University's faculty and alumni. Their selections are not subject to review by institutional officials.
The George Polk Awards are presented each spring at a luncheon in Manhattan attended by news executives, journalists, educators and students. The work of Award winners is exhibited in the form of posters and video/audio clips. Elegantly crafted citations are read by familiar voices - Douglas Edwards of CBS and Reed Collins of CNN each did it for many years. Award recipients provide observations, often describing pressures they faced from the angry subjects of their exposés. Long Island University's journalism department takes a more academic look at some of the award-winning efforts at the George Polk Seminar, which is held on the eve of the luncheon. Seminar participants include a panel of winners who discuss their reporting and respond to questions from members of the press and from journalism students.
In the spirit of George Polk, homage is also paid at the Awards Luncheon to journalists who have died in the line of duty. The list, compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists and posted in the exhibition area, is invariably long enough to elicit exclamations of surprise.
The George Polk Awards celebrate their 60th anniversary in 2009. Over the years they have highlighted the best of American journalism - and a good part of the nation itself.
Edward Hershey attended his first George Polk Awards Luncheon in 1962 when he was a freshman journalism major at Long Island University's Brooklyn Campus. Three years later, he was chosen to be Long Island University's George Polk Outstanding Student in Journalism. Hershey was a reporter at the New York World-Telegram & Sun, the Suffolk Sun and Newsday, where his own investigative reporting won awards from the Society of Silurians and the New York State Publishers Association. Hershey served as a George Polk Awards juror in 1974, joined the Polk Awards Committee in 1978 and has participated as a Polk judge ever since. He is communications director for SEIU Local 503, OPEU and is a principal at Edward Hershey & Associates.