Beloved war correspondent Ernie Pyle would've turned 118 years old today. He never reached his 45th birthday, as he died instantly from a Japanese sniper shot to his head during a battle in Okinawa. The Pulitzer-winning Pyle was among the most famous journalists during WWII, revered for his honest, folksy accounts of the boys in the trenches. Born in rural Indiana, he planned to retire in New Mexico, where he had built a small wood-frame house on a hill in Albuquerque.
That house became the Ernie Pyle Branch Library, the first branch in the Albuquerque-Bernalillo Public Library System. Librarian Leslie Fox asked me to speak at today's Ernie Pyle Day celebration. Here are my remarks.
Thanks to Leslie Fox for putting this together… and thanks to presenter Ron Paneboeuf (from NM Veteran's Memorial Park, who talked about Pyle's connection with New Mexican war cartoonist Bill Maudlin)… and thanks to the Albuquerque Public Libraries for maintaining this active branch in the house where Ernie lived and hoped to retire.
I’m honored to be here with you… to help celebrate Ernie Pyle’s birthday… and what we can now call the second annual National Ernie Pyle Day.
I was lucky to be part of the very large celebration last year -- over at the Veterans Memorial Park -- to kick off the FIRST Annual National Ernie Pyle Day.
Ernie Pyle’s willingness to put himself in harm’s way -- in order to convey the truth to others -- so that we all might share the obligation of knowing the truth -- that is a lesson Ernie Pyle keeps teaching us.
Getting August 3rd officially recognized in all the states has been the work of a small group that include Ernie’s closest surviving relatives. They call themselves the Ernie Pyle Legacy Foundation -- and I’m happy to have become friends with them. Today, they are gathered in Pyle's birth state, Indiana, to celebrate the occasion there.
As I say, their group is a small one. They don’t have a ton of money. Their website is not very sophisticated. But what they lack in flashiness… they make up for in passion for keeping Ernie’s legacy alive.
In particular, I want to thank the Ernie Pyle Legacy Foundation for reaching out to journalism programs around the country -- including ours here at the University of New Mexico.
I’m on the faculty here. I teach news reporting. And sometimes when I feel I have the hardest job in the world, I’m happy to be reminded about what Ernie Pyle stood for in our industry.
You see, teaching journalism today is a tall challenge. Afterall, the very future of our industry is not an assured thing.
I’m not talking about the attacks on the press by politicians and people who see the world through polarized glasses. The press has always had to weather attacks on its credibility… and the answer has always been to be fair and be accurate. Just tell it like it is.
What’s really threatening journalism today is change. Technological change is the real biggie. The advancement of the portable computer tethered to the internet means anyone can communicate instantly with anyone or everyone… bypassing not only the media gatekeepers of old but also bypassing the many useful layers of skill and training... and editing and ethics of professional journalists.
You’ll certainly be forgiven if you have a hard time separating out a professional journalist from a media commentator from a social blogger to an entertainer or a huckster today! (We’ll save the media literacy lecture for another day!)
But add to that, the changing economics of journalism. Advertisers no longer need mass communication platforms to get maximum numbers of eyeballs on their messages. They can use Facebook and Google to target likely buyers for a fraction of what it cost to have newspapers print ads. And, of course, Craigslist offers classified ads for free.
This is what we mean when we say the business model of journalism has been disrupted. Ads used to pay for the public service of journalism. Now we’re wondering if the public will actually pay directly for journalism. So far, it’s not going well.
The newspaper -- the medium that made Ernie Pyle a household name in the 1940s -- has been the base of the journalism pyramid in America. It’s the newspaper that employed the most professional journalists. Most towns used to have more than one newspaper, making for great competition in who could get the biggest scoop, get it first and tell it best.
Without the newspaper, the broadcasters had little to report -- although TV and radio did hire teams of reporters -- but it was always the size and the impact of the newspaper that powered journalism -- providing a check on political power… holding up a mirror to society.
The Pulitzer Prize is a Newspaper Award. When Ernie won the Pulitzer, that was a huge deal because it deemed him among the best of the best of all journalists.
This week the Pew Research Center reported the number of journalists employed by newspapers has fallen by 45% over the past 10 years. In real numbers, that’s the loss of more than 30,000 journalists who keep watch on the public’s behalf.
Yes, we’ve had some upticks in hiring by digital news startups… and in television news… but still the overall number of journalists working in America is down by 23% since 2008. And that’s largely because of the erosion of the newspaper newsroom… erosion of the base of the pyramid.
And so journalism is changing… and teaching journalism is changing. And it IS difficult to encourage young people to enter the ranks of professional journalism -- partly because the jobs are fewer… the work is hard… the pay is not that great… and because of the animosity they face.
And so thoughts of Ernie Pyle help me mitigate this challenge.
When I think about Ernie Pyle, I think about how he represented two great american institutions at the same time, in the same man.
He represented the press but he also represented the military. And, in those days, trust in those american institutions -- in ALL american institutions -- was very high.
To cite the Pew Research Center again: Today… trust is the Military is very high in the United States. Almost 80% of people say they trust the military to act in the best interests of the country.
But trust in journalism is low. Only 38% say they trust the news media to act in the best interests of the country.
And, by the way, with our polarized political sphere... trust for elected officials -- the people we choose to lead our democracy - they get the lowest levels of trust in the survey -- only 27% of people expect politicians to act in our best interests.
So… channeling Ernie Pyle’s legacy into this conversation provides some hope that BOTH our military AND our journalism can share high degrees of trust.
Clearly we have work to do on the journalism side. Frankly, we need more journalists with Ernie’s penchant for telling good stories that matter. Stories that connect -- perhaps literally, perhaps metaphorically -- those heroic sacrifices on distant battlefields with the hope for security and prosperity at home.
Ernie’s gift was his empathy for the little guy. And it was also his knack for detail. He was able to imbue his writing with those real characters, in their authentic words, while set in the context of global forces over which they had no control… yet there they were, part of something bigger. Ernie brought the war home to mothers and fathers… brothers and sisters… in ways that conveyed the ordinary and extraordinary in simple words.
Ernie was beloved for his ability to connect us.
Let me come back to the Ernie Pyle Legacy Foundation. I mentioned they reached out to me and my journalism department at the university.
One thing they did was set up a scholarship for students studying journalism.
But they didn’t just want to give financial aid to a worthy student… they also wanted that student to learn about Ernie Pyle… and reflect on Ernie’s work and how that still informs journalism today.
I’d like you to meet this year’s winner of the Ernie Pyle Legacy Foundation scholarship. He had to win this scholarship by writing the best essay.
Please join me in congratulating Mr. Anthony Jackson!
Anthony is a senior at UNM. He’s majoring in multimedia journalism with a minor in political science. He’s particularly interested in PhotoJournalism.
Anthony is reporting for the Daily Lobo, our student newspaper. Last year, he helped cover the state legislature as an intern for the online news site New Mexico In Depth. And the year before that, he was selected to serve in Washington DC with an internship program we have there with Talk Media News.
<<ANTHONY SAYS A FEW WORDS, SUMMARIZES HIS ESSAY. ANSWERS A FEW QUESTIONS ABOUT HIS PLANS>>
Thanks Anthony! I’m looking forward to having Anthony in my advanced reporting class this fall. (I hope you like covering electoral politics!)
And if anyone wants to contribute to the Ernie Pyle Legacy Scholarship at UNM… please do! We have a page on the UNM Foundation website. or see me afterward.
Let me wrap up my comments with a few thoughts.
I’m too young to have experienced Ernie Pyle’s journalism directly… but as a former journalist… as a former army soldier… and as a journalism teacher… I really appreciate what he did. And what he died for.
It’s hard to know how Ernie would be treated today if he were working, say, in Afghanistan where we are still at war. Would his folksy style be welcome in the 24-7 cable-driven news cycle? Probably not. Would his readers -- both domestic and on the battlefield -- wait expectantly for his latest dispatch. Or would he be lost in the cacophony of media messages competing for those eyeballs?
But one thing I do know. Ernie’s talent for listening is still the key to good journalism.
His tireless effort to report on behalf of the individual is still key.
Ernie’s talent for listening is still the key to good journalism.
And Ernie Pyle’s willingness to put himself in harm’s way -- in order to convey the truth to others -- so that we all might share the obligation of knowing the truth -- that is a lesson Ernie Pyle keeps teaching us.
Thank you very much.