Polk award is bittersweet for "Blackwater" author
Winning the prestigious George Polk award is bittersweet vindication for investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill. His book, "Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army," was ignored by most major news organizations (including this one) when it was released in February 2007.
Readers found it though, putting Scahill on the Los Angeles Times and New York Times bestseller lists long before Blackwater Worldwide security forces killed 17 and wounded 24 Iraqi civilians in a Baghdad thoroughfare last September. And with debate dragging on over whether Blackwater and other security firms (which operate in numbers rivaling actual U.S. military forces in Iraq) should remain immune from prosecution, still more attention to Scahill's book is likely to follow.
"It took 17 innocent Iraqi civilians being gunned down in the streets of Baghdad for [Blackwater] to become a page one story," Scahill wrote in an e-mail. "If, in any way, winning this award means that efforts to hold Blackwater and other mercenary forces accountable for their killings and other crimes will intensify, that would mean infinitely more to me than any accolades for the book."
For Scahill, a central — and still largely underreported — story of the Iraq war has to do with the U.S. hiring of private military contractors, with North Carolina-based Blackwater being one of the largest, to extend its reach in war zones. These "secretive, shadow forces . . . have regularly killed Iraqis, shot at civilians and committed crimes in Iraq over the past five years in a climate where impunity and immunity have gone hand-in-hand," said the correspondent for the Nation and the national TV and radio program Democracy Now!. "They have not been held accountable under any legal system and continue their armed activities in Iraq to this moment."
The award was one of 14 given to print, broadcast and online journalists by Long Island University on Tuesday, Feb. 19. Other recipients include author and essayist John McPhee; Leila Fadel, Baghdad bureau chief for McClatchy Co.; Wall Street Journal reporter Shai Oster; Joshua Micah Marshall, editor and publisher of the political blog, Talking Points Memo; and the staffs of the Chicago Tribune and the Charlotte Observer.
The awards — named for CBS correspondent George Polk, who was killed while covering the civil war in Greece in 1948 — will be presented April 17 in New York. In the meantime, Scahill says he's hard at work on "a pretty substantial update" of his book for the paperback edition coming out this summer from Nation Books.