by Ken Gorrell, Weirs Times Contributing Writer
Most of us don’t have a “heroic narrative.” Most of us don’t feel the need to have one, though certainly some of us would rise to the occasion and earn one if called upon.
I don’t have a heroic narrative, and unlike (former) NBC News anchorman Brian Williams, I’ve never felt the urge to create one out of whole cloth. As the latest journalism fiction played out these past few weeks, we’ve been exposed to the spectacle of a star in an industry built ostensibly on trust fall due to that most pernicious of sins: Pride. Of course, stupidity had a lot to do with it, too.
How anyone in the news business could believe that the trail markers he’d been leaving in his path to prominence wouldn’t eventually be followed back to their beginnings is beyond comprehension. It is the type of character flaw that inspired Greek tragedies. And the fall-out has been just as entertaining.
Throughout history people have needed heroes. Their tales fill our literature. It’s in our nature to elevate and venerate those few who seem like us on some level but who act in ways we believe are beyond our capabilities. Many books have been written on the nature of heroism, and I’m hardly qualified to add to the genre. I did, however, edit the memoir of a journalism hero. During my research I realized just how far off track journalism has gone.
Soldier of the Press, Covering the Front in Europe and North Africa, 1936 – 1943, by Henry Tilton Gorrell, is a tale told by a hero (though he wouldn’t have used that term on himself), filled with stories about heroes. I’ve written about Henry’s book in these pages since his memoir was published posthumously in 2009. Though I never met my distant cousin, Henry has been on my mind a lot as the revelations poured out about Williams’ oft-told-tales.
Journalism as a profession has faced many challenges since the days when Henry reported from foreign battlefields for the United Press wire service. Journalism has failed more than succeeded. Williams fictionalized a heroic narrative on his climb to the top – to become a glorified editor / news reader – because, one assumes, he understood that was what his bosses required. Seventy years ago, Henry and the reporters he traveled with (including Ernie Pyle and Andy Rooney) faced the real dangers of war to get the story, not a promotion. In doing his job, Henry earned the label “hero,” and received a medal proving it.
Henry was the first journalist to be award the Air Medal, a military honor. Like most real heroes, Henry didn’t brag about the medal in his memoir. Like most of his battlefield stories, he limited his role to the teller of somebody else’s tale. When his own story necessarily took center stage – as when he was twice captured during Spain’s civil war and sentenced to death – he writes about it with the air of “here’s another fine mess I found myself in.” Unlike Williams, there was not a braggadocious bone is Henry’s body.
The incident that resulted in the awarding of the Air Medal was similarly told – just another day on the job. Yet that day Henry saved the life of an airman on a B-24 during a bombing mission over Navarino Bay, Greece. Henry chose to fly with the crew of “The Witch,” the bomber assigned as the last plane in the formation. He knew what that meant: The last plane would fly over the target long after enemy fighters had been alerted and the anti-aircraft batteries had refined their targeting. But for Henry, the story was all important, and the last plane would afford him views of the devastation other correspondents on that raid would not see.
I had the privilege of talking with the pilot of “The Witch.” He remembered Henry and that night as if it had happened the week before. How could he forget a mission where his plane had been shot to pieces, a crewman nearly killed by strafing, and the flight home was a battle to stay in the air? Even at ninety-two and decades after the fact, his recollection of events that night was entirely consistent with Henry’s reporting and the public record. Their stories were told with humility foreign to many of today’s media personalities.
Heroic narratives are earned, not created. They are not resumé bullets. As the spot light fades on Brian Williams, it should be shined brightly into the dark corners of NBC. We need less peacock, more turkey from the talking heads at Nightly News.
Ken can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.