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Columnist John Paradis: Free press fundamental to democracy

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Thursday, August 09, 2018

Aug. 3 was “National Ernie Pyle Day,” designated as such by a resolution passed last year by the U.S. Senate.

The center of the celebration was in Bloomington, Indiana, on the campus of Indiana University, where Pyle studied journalism and worked for the student newspaper before beginning his professional reporting career.

Pyle was fatally hit on April 18, 1945, by Japanese machine-gun fire while on the Pacific island of le Shima near Okinawa. He was 44 years old.

Perhaps the best known reporter during World War II, Pyle earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1944 for his reports from the battlefield and he was so respected by the Armed Forces that he posthumously received the Purple Heart in a ceremony in New York in 1983.  Civilians are no longer given the Purple Heart.

Just inside Sample Gates, the welcoming entrance to the oldest part of the Bloomington campus, is a sculpture of Pyle, sitting on an ammunition box typing on his typewriter. The sculpture is in front of Franklin Hall, which houses IU’s Media School.

My daughter, Meghan, is a graduate student at IU, so I’ve seen the statue several times, most recently last month when visiting her.  

On the same day I was on the IU campus, President Trump was in Kansas City, speaking to the annual Veterans of Foreign Wars convention.  Accompanied by National Rifle Association President Oliver North, Trump used his time at the podium to do what he frequently does — go on an anti-media rant.

Pointing to reporters in attendance, Trump said: “Stick with us. Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news.” 

As VFW members booed and hissed at the press corps, Trump added, “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”

Now, I can’t presume to think what Pyle would say about the president’s comments were he alive today, but I would like to think he, like me, a retired military public affairs officer and VFW life member, would be incredulous.  

But I’ve come to expect such comments from the 45th president.  But to my fellow VFW members who booed the press, shame on you.

Afterward, the VFW issued a statement scolding members who heckled the press but stopping  short of admonishing the president for his dangerous rhetoric.  Now, I’m questioning whether or not I want to continue to be a member myself.

I have and will say this to any VFW member — a free press is fundamental to democracy and functions just as the founding fathers intended: a watchdog that stands ups to the powers that be. The press, I would say, is a stalwart against tyranny and is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution, which all military members swore an oath to defend and protect. 

I asked James Shanahan, the dean of IU’s Media School, about Ernie Pyle and how Pyle might have reacted to comments from President Trump.

 “Of course, it’s hard to know what Ernie Pyle would say exactly, and I’m a little hesitant to speculate,” said Shanahan, who earned his doctorate degree from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and lived in Northampton during his time in the Valley.

“Without politicizing Pyle’s record and legacy, the need to defend and fight for journalism is something we feel quite strongly now in our journalism education efforts,” said Shanahan, who made a point to emphasize his everlasting gratitude to the communications department at UMass and in particular, professor emeritus Michael Morgan. “I hope that Pyle would approve of what we do in that regard.”

IU’s Media School is doing a great job from the looks of its curriculum and its student newspaper, which devoted its front page to Ernie Pyle the week I was on campus.

“Pyle believed in journalism that informed people, and told stories in a way that humanized his subjects,” said Cameron Drummond, the editor-in-chief of the Indiana Daily Student.

“He was a model example for all journalists,” Drummond said of Pyle. “Not only at IU but around the world, and (Pyle) would encourage members of the media to follow in his legacy despite persistent comments from the standing U.S. president.”

Pyle created the image of the GI of World War II with his hometown style of reporting the intimate daily life of the everyday foot soldier and service member.  He marched along with the anonymous infantryman, he persevered with them in the mud and in the heat and in the cold, absent of any glamour and glory.

He took part in the London Blitz, the North African campaigns, the Italian and Sicilian battles, the D-Day invasion, the battle of Saint Lo and the Allied entry into Paris, and then died in the Pacific theater while covering the final stages of the war.

All along he sent back reports that taught the American people what to think and feel about their fighting men overseas. 

“His legacy to me is simply one that combines very high regard for the truth with ability to tell stories that we can all understand,” says Shanahan. “I think he was a patriotic person, and of course supported the war effort that he was covering, but from his works that I have read there was still a drive to tell the truth in all of its aspects.”

At a time when the commander-in-chief rails at the media as “the enemy of the people” and labels national media outlets as “fake news,” Pyle’s style of journalism represents the continued relevance of reporting on the human condition. He is an example that news is a reality to most people, the current president notwithstanding.

“Nobody knows how many individuals in our forces and at home he helped with his writings,” said President Harry Truman in a statement on the day of Pyle’s death. “But all Americans understand now how wisely, how warmheartedly, how honestly he served his country and his profession.  He deserves the gratitude of all his countrymen.”

We can only hope that future presidents will likewise respect and admire members of the working press, the independent truth-seekers out there who continue to tell the American story and who, like Pyle before them, are a powerful tool in the arsenal of democracy.

John Paradis, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, lives in Florence and writes a column published the second Friday of the month. He can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.