By Michael O’Connell
This was originally published on another blog on Memorial Day 2011.
Reading Matthew Ingram’s post about journalist Andy Carvin tweeting reports from North Africa and New York Times reporter Brian Stelter talking about using Twitter to provide real-time coverage of tornado-struck Joplin, Mo., got me thinking, how would Ernie Pyle have used Twitter?
Of course, I’m going to ask about Pyle since I’m an Indiana University School of Journalism grad and spent many hours learning how to report, write and edit news in Ernie Pyle Hall.
Pyle was an omnipresent, friendly spirit that inspired young journalism students in Bloomington. A true Hoosier, he was a little man who told big stories about the day-to-day life of regular G.I.’s during World War II. It’s Memorial Day weekend, so my thoughts turn naturally to Pyle, who was killed in April 1945 on an island near Okinawa.
People become journalists for lots of different reasons, the desire to write, to tell a story, to make a difference in the world. Few of us choose this career to become rich or famous, though, we can dream and hope. Many of my generation were inspired to go into journalism because of Woodward and Berntstein’s coverage of Watergate — hey, two journalists who became rich and famous through reporting, see there is hope. It wasn’t the fame that inspired us, I think, but the “romance” of breaking the big story against incredible odds.
Scratch the the surface of a hard-bitten reporter and you’ll find a romantic with just enough ego to believe that he or she can make difference. Fame and riches are secondary.
The story of Ernie Pyle, a chronicler of the common man during times of extreme crisis, inspires plenty of romance. He marched with the troops. He slept in foxholes, lugging his portable typewriter. He was beloved by the average soldier and newspaper readers back home. He was killed by machine gun fire.
From smart bombs to satellite tracking, technology has changed war. It’s also changing journalism. Traditional journalists are coming to grips with how social media, Twitter in particular, is changing the way reporters gather information and tell their stories. Twitter users start revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East. Osama bin Laden’s neighbor tweets about all the helicopter noise coming from next door. Of course reporters should tweet and follow Twitter. You can’t ignore it. It’s not going away.
Think how America’s current G.I.’s can go out on patrol in Afghanistan in the morning and talk to family members via Skype that same night.
I imagine that Ernie Pyle would’ve embraced Twitter. A smart phone would certainly have been lighter to carry than his portable Corona. As a storyteller, he would’ve appreciated being able to get his story to his readers in real time. At 140 characters a post, though, I suspect that his prose would have to tighter. That’s OK. He’d still have his blog for longer, more thoughtful pieces.
On Memorial Day weekend, remember those who fought for our freedoms, including freedom of the press. Remember also those who died exercising that freedom.