Not the best known of journalism’s honors, the annual George Polk Awards carry a cachet that’s the legacy of their namesake — George Polk was a CBS reporter assassinated in Greece in 1948 while covering that country’s civil war. Though they’re awarded in a wide range of categories that don’t necessarily require journalists to go in harm’s way, the Polks embody the specific values of dogged enterprise and courage to a degree even the Pulitzers do not.
The 2009 Polks were just announced by Long Island University, which administers them, and the award for international reporting went to Paul F. Salopek of the Tribune for “Waging War and Peace in Africa,” a series of articles last fall describing a new Pentagon initiative in East Africa. A model journalist in the George Polk tradition, Salopek won a Pulitzer in 2001 (it was his second), for coverage of civil war in Congo. In 2006 he was arrested in Sudan and accused of espionage, and he spent more than a month in jail.
The Polk committee hailed Salopek for “uncovering the rarely publicized but more controversial aspects of America’s war on terror in the Horn of Africa, an expanse that includes Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan and Eritrea.” The citation went on, “In three reports from remote and lawless regions, he described the beleaguered efforts of the United States military to pre-empt an anticipated surge of radical Islamist activity. His accounts also depicted growing anti-American sentiment and accusations of secret rendition and prison programs in the region.”
Here’s a list of all of this year’s Polk winners. We particularly applaud the Polk for radio reporting, which is going to Alex Blumberg of This American Life and Adam Davidson of National Public Radio for their joint report “The Giant Pool of Money.” Says the Polk committee: “Their piece distilled down the highly complex chain of events that led to the subprime mortgage crisis. Through the stories of mortgage brokers and packagers, as well as those who have lost their homes, the pair illuminated the impact of no-interest, no-asset (NINA) mortgages and connected the dots between the people on Wall Street who made the deals and the people on Main Street whose lives will never be the same.”
When I heard this report, it seemed to me that Blumberg and Davidson were making coherent not merely terms and processes that had remained incomprehensible in the press coverage of the crash, but also terms and processes so arcane the press coverage had avoided even bringing them up.