Joseph Polakoff Collection

Joseph Polakoff Collection

Biography of Joseph Polakoff

Joseph Polakoff (1908-1996) was born in Russia on October 20, 1908 and grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania. In 1925, while a senior at Central High School, he began work as a messenger and copy-boy at the Scranton Republican (later the Scranton Tribune, now the Scranton Times-Tribune). He started as a reporter, became sports editor for four years (contributing a weekly column called "Polly's Chatter"), and finally served as city editor. Polakoff noted that he was "the first Jew to hold those jobs" at the Tribune.

While working for the Tribune, Polakoff attended St. Thomas College (now the University of Scranton) where he covered athletics for the college newspaper, The Aquinas. He finished in four years, graduating in 1932 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. In 1934, he married Dorothy Plopinger of New York City.

From October 1939 through August 1940, Polakoff took a leave of absence from the Tribune to study journalism in New York City. He served as an "observer" at a number of journalism outlets (including the Associated Press, the United Press, and the International News Service) and New York newpapers (including the New York Times, Herald-Tribune, World-Telegram, Post, Mirror, and Journal-American). He shared this expertise as a University of Scranton faculty member during the spring of 1941.

In 1942, he was invited to join the staff of the newly formed Office of War Information (OWI). He began serving in Washington, D.C., and in 1944 was transferred to a post in England. Polakoff was sent to London, where he wrote the Potomac Cable for the State Department. In late 1949, he was transferred back to Washington to work for the State Department's Information Service. In 1953, Polakoff was transferred to the newly created United States Information Agency (USIA), and in 1954 he was transferred to Yugoslavia for a more than a year before returning to Washington.

In 1960, President Eisenhower appointed Polakoff as information specialist for a State Department South and Central American assistance program. Polakoff was based in Lima, Peru until President Kennedy terminated the program in 1961. Polakoff then transferred to the United Nations where he served as policy guidance officer. The Kennedy administration selected Polakoff in 1962 to serve as special information officer for the Central American Common Market (CACM). Polakoff was based in Guatemala for seven years and wrote a report on the Common Market which was published as a Congressional document.

In 1969, he returned to Washington to work with USIA but retired from the State Department in 1970 after 28 years of service. After a four month break, Polakoff started a new career as Washington bureau chief for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA). Polakoff traveled widely and wrote regularly for the JTA: he accompanied President Nixon to the USSR, Poland and Iran, and in 1979, accompanied President Carter to Cairo and Jerusalem to witness the signing of the Begin-Sadat peace accord.

In 1981, Polakoff retired from the JTA and became the Washington bureau chief for the Intermountain Jewish News. He continued to write nearly until his death from lung cancer on April 12, 1996 at age 87.

Polakoff was known for his tough and persistent style of questioning. As James Deakin wrote in Straight Stuff: The Reporters, the White House and the Truth, "No press secretary has ever matched Polakoff's knowledge of the Middle East." In 1984, the American Jewish Press Association established an annual Joseph Polakoff Award for Integrity in Jewish Journalism.