Everyman Covering a Colossal Ordeal  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   September 1997

Everyman Covering a Colossal Ordeal   

Ernie Pyle's War: America's Eyewitness to World War II
By James Tobin
The Free Press

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     



Ernie Pyle's War: America's Eyewitness to World War II
By James Tobin
The Free Press
312 pages; $25

This book is full of memorable writing, but my favorite excerpt doesn't come from a World War II dispatch or even a published article. It comes from a memo Ernie Pyle wrote while managing editor of the Washington Daily News, long before he became the world's most famous combat correspondent.

"We have to make people read this paper," Pyle exhorted his staff. "We are asleep. Dead... Get alive... You
can't find interesting things
if you're not interested...

"Always look for the story — for the unexpected human
emotion in the story...

"Write a story as though it were a privilege for you to write it... You don't have to be smart-alecky or pseudo-funny. Be human. Try to write like people talk."

Few journalists have ever so lived up to their own words.

Ernie Pyle was, by James Tobin's estimation, "far more than an ordinary reporter, more even than the most popular journalist of his generation. He was America's eyewitness to the twentieth century's supreme ordeal."

His columns, syndicated through Scripps Howard to millions of readers, conveyed war's enormity with conversational clarity and piercing intimacy.

"If Ernie Pyle himself had not won the war," Tobin concludes, "America's mental picture of the soldiers who had won it was largely Pyle's creation."

Like Babe Ruth or Beethoven, Pyle created the standard by which all successors would be judged.

So I searched this fine new biography not only for the narrative of Pyle's life, but also for the secrets of his craft. How did he do it, and what can today's reporters learn from him?

Tobin, a Detroit News reporter, believes that Pyle "shaped a mythic role for himself" by creating a persona, akin to but significantly different from the man himself.

"The actual Ernie remained a bundle of contradictions and anxieties," Tobin writes. "But 'Ernie Pyle' came to life as a figure of warmth and reassurance, a sensitive, self-deprecating, self-revealing, compassionate friend."

Through a " 'poor devil' personal style," he spoke directly, almost bashfully to readers, "using the pronouns 'I' and 'you' with a fresh sincerity that convinced people they knew Ernie Pyle." He skillfully drew on "simple sensory images" to give readers what Pyle himself called a "worm's-eye view."

Here's Pyle writing about D-Day, for example: "I took a walk along the historic coast of Normandy in the country of France.

"It was a lovely day for strolling along the seashore. Men were sleeping on the sand, some of them sleeping forever...

"This is the strewn personal gear, gear that will never be needed again, of those who fought and died to give us our entrance into Europe...

"Here are socks and shoe polish, sewing kits, diaries, Bibles and hand grenades. Here are the latest letters from home... Here are toothbrushes and razors, and snapshots of families back home staring up at you from the sand..."

Pyle's work achieved "a transformation of the ordinary into the sublime," providing readers with "a way of seeing the chaos and misery that allowed them to make sense of it."

His reporting technique was equally direct and personal. "He was tone-deaf to high politics... What he sought was the personal experience of war," according to Tobin.

Brilliant at blending in, Pyle enjoyed, as one soldier put it, "a faculty for becoming 'one of the boys' in two seconds flat." So he hung around with the enlisted men. "He dug slit trenches with them, ate meals with them, kibbitzed with them, dove for cover with them when German planes appeared...."

Today, we would call it "immersion reporting." In 1944, a GI put it this way: "He lived and traveled right along with all of us, did the things we did, slept and sweated out all the things we did."

Tobin seems right that Ernie the columnist came across far differently from Ernie the actual person, a melancholy, hypochondriac, sometimes depressed sad sack caught up in a tortured marriage to an emotionally troubled woman. Covering war, as harrowing as it was, gave Pyle "the means of escaping personal despair."

But it's also apparent that much of the Pyle voice and style drew on his everyman upbringing. Born in Dana, Indiana, to a "respected, hardworking, churchgoing" farm family, Pyle sprang figuratively and actually from Middle America. He got hooked on journalism at Indiana University, dropped out to follow his passion, and toiled as reporter, copy editor and managing editor before sailing off to World War II.

He saw the war in London, North Africa, Italy and France, witnessed the liberation of Paris and then turned his focus on the war in the Pacific. There, on April 18, 1945, he died from a sniper's machine-gun fire.

In tracing Pyle's career and work, Tobin makes clear that Pyle had a rare native feel for the rhythms of regular people. But the book also reinforces the virtue of timeless reporting fundamentals, like open-mindedness, on-the-spot coverage and attention to detail.

Pyle may have made it look effortless but behind his success was hard work. "My friends think it is an easy job," he once wrote. "They think I'm getting paid just for seeing the world... They don't know what it is to drive and dig up information all day long, and then work till midnight writing it. One story a day sounds as easy as falling off a log.

"Try it sometime."

Stepp, AJR's senior editor, teaches at the University of Maryland College of Journalism.


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