October 2, 2013

KITCHELL: Pyle earned a rightful place on a J-school


---- — It may seem odd for someone who graduated from Purdue University with a degree in communications to defend the Indiana University Ernie Pyle School of Journalism.

Well, it’s happening here today.

If you think that’s odd, you might think the fact that Indiana University officials are considering the elimination of Ernie Pyle’s name from one of the best journalism schools in the nation odder still. We all should.

One of the reasons for a change has to do with merging curriculum under one tent which is somehwat understandable. But eliminating the Ernie Pyle name in the process and downshifting the significance of journalism on the Bloomington campus just isn’t.

There is reason to have respect for the job that Indiana University President Michael McRobbie has done in his tenure in Bloomington. He has righted a foundering ship that only a half dozen years ago had IU alums up in arms. He has done a commendable job of raising the university’s share of government research funding. But as someone who was not born in this country, he apparently lacks real appreciation for the First Amendment of our Constitution or the American role in the world.

If anything, McRobbie and Indiana officials should be embracing the Ernie Pyle name in journalism at a time when more foreign correspondents are needed, when 67 died on the job in other lands last year alone, and when the Internet has made us all closer to the other side of the world than we have ever been. Ernie Pyle opened that door for newspaper readers in the 1930s and 1940s before he was killed while covering World War II. Much of what he did wasn’t glamorous, but it was essential to understanding why Americans by the thousands were being shipped all over the world, and why many of them were coming back in boxes. It was a difficult story to tell, but it was the story of the nation’s “greatest generation” as Tom Brokaw called it. Ernie Pyle was part of that generation.

His significance to journalism is so intertwined with his craft that April 18, the day he died in the South Pacific, is the day recognized in the industry as National Columnist Day — a day to toast what Ernie Pyle did for journalism and we all should do remember his contributions. Apparently that designation didn’t make the desk calendars in McRobbie’s office.

They don’t make movies about bloggers. They made one about Ernie Pyle, who won a Pulitzer Prize. Think how many journalists you’ve watched on television, heard on radio newscasts or read about from foreign bylines. How many of them you knew ever died on the job? Ernie did, and he didn’t have to die. He wasn’t drafted. He was just an American trying to do an American thing for the It should be noted, as IU alum Jim Stinson reported last week, that IU journalism grads can claim another 33 Pulitzer Prizes as well. McRobbie and IU trustees may be slamming the door that opened many doors for Indiana journalists.

Why IU apparently doesn’t want to claim Pyle as its most prestigious journalism alum any longer is a mystery, but not unusal in an era when universities are eager to strip names off buildings and schools so that a wealthy donor can write a check and get a tax write-off from the self-aggrandizing validation of seeing their name on a college building.

It’s not unusual to give up on a successful program. Just a few years ago, Northwestern University closed its dental school. It wasn’t done because people don’t need dentists anymore. It simply wasn’t cost effective for a private university to operate. But what’s cost effective and what’s a public responsibility are not necessarily the same things in public universities as they are in private schools. Can you imagine IU dumping its dental school? I can’t. As a state university, it has a public responsibility to teach people to be dentists. Closing that school would be a matter that should be taken seriously. Eliminating the Pyle name from the IU journalism school should be taken, at the least, more seriously.

In my own tenure as a full-time journalist, I installed a famous quote by Thomas Jefferson on the Opinion Page. Jefferson mused that if he were forced to choose between a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, he would not hesitate to choose the latter. By considering the elimination of Ernie Pyle’s name from one of the signature schools on the Bloomington campus and one of the top journalism schools in the country, IU officials are barely hesitating to prefer the opposite of what Jefferson wanted.

One of the most famous quotes about war reporting is that in war, truth is the first casualty. In the saga unfolding in Bloomington with this pending decision, the reputation of the most famous war correspondent this nation has ever known may be the last casualty associated with his name.

Dave Kitchell is a columnist for the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached at