MEMOIR: My first college professor
The winners of the George Polk Awards for excellence in journalism in 2006 were announced this week. Although not as well-known as the Pulitzer Prizes, which honor literary achievements and musical composition as well as journalism, the Polk Awards are limited to the news business. A roll-call of the winners over the past 58 years include the nation's most distinguished people in the field.
The awards commemorate George W. Polk, a Columbia Broadcasting System foreign correspondent who was murdered in 1948 while covering the Greek civil war. His body was found floating in the Bay of Salonika. He had been shot in the back of the head at point-blank range. Ever since, a controversy has raged over whether his killers were Communists or the right-wing military government they were battling. Polk had acquired enemies on both sides because of his unbiased reporting.
The Polk Awards have a special meaning to me because Polk was one of my first two teachers as a college freshman. I don't remember the name of the other one. But the publicity surrounding both Polk's murder and the subsequent publicity over the annual awards in his honor have firmly established him in my memory.
In February 1942 I was enrolled as a night school student at New York University. Polk had been a Paris correspondent for the now-defunct New York Herald-Tribune and was now assigned to the paper's foreign news desk in New York. He was also working as a part-time journalism instructor at NYU. I was one of about a dozen students in his class.
Polk had a reserve commission as a Navy pilot. As I recall, he was called up for active duty when the course ended in early June. Several months later, I learned that he was serving on Guadalcanal.
Although my exposure to Polk in the classroom was so brief, I remember him as an excellent lecturer. His subject was the history of journalism, a required course for journalism majors. It was not the kind of subject likely to excite young, aspiring journalists eager for an energetic career as reporters.
I recall, however, that Polk made the subject vivid, introducing us to the early 18th Century career of John Peter Zenger and regaling us with tales of more modern and important journalistic figures. Zenger, who is not exactly a household name to the general public, was a German-born printer and editor in New York City during the Colonial era. He played a vital role in the development of the freedom of the press in America.
Zenger was tried and acquitted on sedition and libel charges against the British governor in 1735. The Zenger decision has been celebrated for laying the groundwork for the responsibilities of both the media and the government in a functioning democracy. Polk, my first college professor, was killed while reporting in a foreign environment where the principles of a free press were unknown.