In 1868, Union General John A. Logan issued General Orders No. 11, establishing a day “for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” We still remember our war heroes that way.
What is too often lost in the chaos of modern life is the reason why these Americans fought and died. They felt the need to answer the call to defend our basic freedoms: religion, equal justice, assembly, speech and freedom of the press.
When pioneer KDKA-TV news anchor Bill Burns described the connection between World War II and a free press to Paul Paolicelli, a young writer working alongside Burns in the 1970s, he said, “If that war was about anything, it was about truth. And if our work is about anything, it’s about truth.”
Burns knew plenty about war. Days after landing at Normandy, a German artillery shell left him with a steel leg brace, a bad limp and a Purple Heart. Burns rarely spoke about his wounds, but he trusted Paolicelli enough to talk about the horror of the battlefield and to tell him that the real heroes never came back.
And Burns knew plenty about the news business. After the war he was a street reporter, covering accidents, fires, murders and mayhem. He started in radio and quickly moved to television news, a new thing then. He anchored KDKA-TV’s noon news for 36 years, making it the highest rated newscast in the country.
Burns was tough. He went toe-to-toe with hooligans and political bosses and presidential candidates. He got all the big stories and the small ones, too, because he knew that they were big to somebody. And he always worked hard to get the story right.
In a 2017 article for the Radio-Television Digital News Association, Paolicelli, now a veteran journalist himself, remembered his mentor and his motto that “The free press is the oil in the machine of democracy.”
“Bill Burns knew what he was fighting for in World War II. He knew what he lost a leg for, what his buddies died for and what his enemies died for.”
Over there — and here — Burns fought for “a society made possible only if people knew what was really happening in their communities, country and world; only if people learned the truth through a free and unfettered press.”
Burns told Paolicelli, “I’ve seen the world at its worst. The first thing the Nazis did was shut down the free press. They lied to their own people and we had to go over there and fight and die to show the truth to the German people and the rest of the world.”
Let’s get this straight. Our president is wrong. Journalists are not the “enemies of the people.” Young Bill Burns and his generation fought and killed the enemies of the people so that we could have a free press and a free and open society.
And, on Memorial Day, we will continue to remember our fallen and we will remember and honor the freedoms for which they fought.