Reporter's Death Still a Whodunit

MEL GIBSON just bought the movie rights. That's one answer to the question: Is there anything of interest today about the death of an American journalist in Greece 42 years ago?

George Polk was on assignment covering the civil war in Greece for CBS radio in 1948 when he suddenly disappeared. A few days later, his body - bound and blindfolded - was found floating in Salonika Bay.

``Who killed George Polk?'' became the subject of a massive investigation by Greek authorities, spurred on by pressure from the United States government and by a group of prominent American journalists, known as the Overseas Writers Special Committee, headed by columnist Walter Lippmann.

Eventually, a Greek journalist, Gregory Staktopoulos, was tried and convicted of being an accessory to the murder, allegedly luring Polk into a trap set by Communist insurgents.

The verdict satisfied the US government and the group of American journalists. After all, everyone agreed that Polk had traveled to Salonika in an effort to interview the Communist rebels and their leaders. His inquiries, they decided, had led to just such a contact. But the rebels had decided that murdering him somehow served their ends better than talking to him.

In the years to follow, as Kati Marton shows in this highly readable account of the Polk murder and trial, this convenient verdict began to unravel. Staktopoulos renounced his confession, claiming it was made under torture. It was discovered that one of the two alleged murderers, who had been tried in absentia, had himself died before the Polk murder. The other, safely in Romania, denied any knowledge of the crime. In 1977, James Kellis, who had been a key investigator working for the journalists' group until he was mysteriously pulled off the case, filed an affidavit charging right-wing fanatics and their British allies with the crime.

Perhaps most revealing, Marton shows, is an incident that occurred only days before Polk's death when he confronted Greek Foreign Minister Constantine Tsaldaris regarding a shady-looking $25,000 US bank account held by Tsaldaris. After the murder, Polk's widow Rea, a Greek national, was harassed by Tsaldaris's son and urged to support the Communist theory for the sake of her homeland's honor.

Clearly, the weight of evidence has shifted heavily toward the trial as a Greek government coverup, with the probability of British and even US collusion for the sake of cold war unity.

THOUGH the final answer to ``Who shot George Polk?'' may never be known, his story, in Marton's hands, becomes a fascinating, cautionary tale.

``An American reporter has been murdered in a foreign country, doing his job,'' reported CBS's Howard K. Smith in a June 19, 1948, broadcast, trying to sum up the meaning of Polk's death. ``His murder cheapens the lives of American reporters everywhere. It cheapens the life of the truth. All reporters everywhere are vitally concerned in finding the answer to the death of George Polk. The survival of truth and the free flow of news are at stake.''

How, then, was the journalists' group, the cream of their profession, apparently so easily duped? Marton posits that they represented the kind of close ``insider'' relationship with government that epitomized the World War II era, when journalists considered themselves patriots and sometimes partners with those in positions of power.

For Marton, Polk, whose reporting was critical of the Greek government, the Communists, and even his own government, foreshadowed a growing new, adversarial relationship between press and policymakers that culminated in the reporting of the Vietnam War and the Watergate affair.

On a personal level, one is left wondering what would have become of Polk, a rising star (one colleague called him ``a blond Errol Flynn'') among Edward R. Murrow's stable of CBS reporters, if he had not died. Would he have joined Walter Cronkite at the CBS anchor desk in the 1950s and '60s?

Finally, Marton says, the incident can be seen as coloring Greek-American relations to this day.

``The American Factor, as Greeks continue to refer to Washington's influence on Greek affairs,'' she writes, ``continues to haunt a scarred national psyche and poisons chances for normal relations between the two countries. The origins of the American Factor can be traced directly to the arrogant men who thought that one honest reporter's life was a small price to pay for their vision of security, national and international. It proved a Faustian bargain. They and their successors are still paying the cost.''

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