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On the Role of a Journalist In a Democracy

Every Memorial Day I think about what our soldiers did on D-Day and what we owe them. They thought democracy was worth fighting for. The least we can do is to help make democracy worthy of them.
 
 
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From your letters I know some of you are curious as to why journalists like me keep opening the Pandora's box of democracy; why we come round and round to what ails America -- the bribing of Congress, the desecration of the environment, corporate tax havens, secrecy, fraud on Wall Street, the arrogance of ideology, the pretensions of power. Do we delight in the dark side of human experience, you ask? Do we never see good in the world? Or was Nietzsche right: that the Christian resolution to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad?

I can only speak for myself, of course. And I confess to thinking of journalism as the social equivalent to a medical diagnosis. My doctor owes me candor; I pay him for it. Candor could save my life.

I like to think journalists are paid for candor, too; society needs to know what could kill us, whether it's too many lies or too much pollution. Napoleon left instructions that he was not to be awakened if the news from the front were good; with good news, he told his secretary, there is no hurry. But if the news were bad, he said, "Rouse me instantly, for then there is not a moment to be lost." Think of journalism as a kind of early warning system -- iceberg spotting in the choppy waters of democracy.

But there's another reason for what we do. I'm reminded of it every year at this time, when my thoughts about the honor and respect we pay to our nation's soldiers on Memorial Day are colored by its proximity to D-Day.

I was just 10 years old when the allies landed on Normandy on June 6, 1944. I couldn't then imagine what it must have been like on those beaches when our world was up for grabs and men spilled their blood and guts to save it. I never knew what it was like until 15 years ago when I accompanied some veterans from Texas who had fought at Normandy and survived, and were now returning to retrace their steps. Jose Lopez was one of the veterans that joined me on that journey.

Lopez said of his experiences as a soldier, "I was really very, very afraid. That I want to scream. I want to cry and we see other people was laying wounded and screaming and everything and it's nothing you could do. We could see them groaning in the water and we keep walking."

Jose Lopez went on to win the Congressional Medal of Honor, our nation's highest honor for gallantry in action. But searching for the place he landed that day, he didn't want to talk about the Medal of Honor. He just wanted to be alone with his memories.

Howard Randall took a bullet in his ankle and almost had his leg amputated. His buddy Ed wasn't so lucky. (Edward J. Myers, First Lieutenant, fought in the 17th Infantry, 76th Division.)

Randall spoke of his friend Ed during our trip, "He's from the State of Washington, Puyallup, Washington. March 1, 1945. That was the same day I was wounded. He was behind me probably a hundred yards, maybe 200 yards. And he caught a piece of mortar fragment in the stomach, lived until that night. I didn't know he'd died until a couple of days later."

Every Memorial Day I think about what these men did and what we owe them. They didn't go through hell so Kenny Boy Lay could betray his investors and workers at Enron, or for a political system built on legal bribery. It wasn't for corporate tax havens in Bermuda, or an economic system driven by the law of the jungle, or so a handful of media buccaneers could turn the public airwaves into private sewers.

Sure, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, freedom makes it possible for people to be crooks, but so does communism, and fascism, and monarchy. Democracy is about doing better. It's about fairness, justice and human rights, and yes, it's about equality, too; look it up.

I was never called on to do what soldiers do; I'll never know if I might have had their courage. But a journalist can help keep the record straight, on their behalf. They thought democracy was worth fighting for, even dying for. The least we can do is to help make democracy worthy of them.

Bill Moyers is the host of NOW With Bill Moyers, a weekly television show on PBS.