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Heroes in the eye of the beholder

Alex Miller

We were talking about the nature of heroism in the newsroom the other day ” a topic that comes up whenever we are presented with a press release describing yet another “hero” of one stripe or another. One of my colleagues wondered aloud why journalists so infrequently get called “heroes” when, in his view, many of them are doing great things around the world.

There are many reasons why this over-used label gets trotted out, and just as many for when it doesn’t. In war time, anyone who puts on a military uniform risks being labeled a hero simply for existing in that status. If your house is afire, all those firefighters become magically anointed with hero status by you and, perhaps, your neighbors. If we’re lucky and attentive parents, we might be seen as heroes by our children, even if they don’t use that particular label.

There’s even a little kids’ cartoon called “Higglytown Heroes,” the premise of which is that every little town is full of everyday heroes who perform a variety of useful tasks ” from driving a bus to unstopping a drain. I liked it when our boys were younger because it helped teach the idea that you don’t necessarily have to be a man with a gun, a man in a spaceship or a man battling tigers to be a good and interesting person.

Hero worship in our society tends to skew toward those who work in violent or action-oriented positions. Teach and inspire kids for 40 years in the public schools and you might get a cake and a certificate at the end of your run. Serve in the military for six months, get wounded, and you’re a war hero for the rest of your life. Not to take anything away from soldiers ” especially those wounded in action ” but there’s an obvious flaw in our priorities here. If we’re too quick to “hero-ize” soldiers and slow to recognize the everyday heroes in our midst, it tells kids ” especially boys ” that the way to glory is with gun in hand.

History tells us that few individual “heroic” actions result in battle-changing outcomes. Even our most lauded hero, George Washington, spent much of the war waiting, moving, retreating and correcting previous errors than he did charging into battle. Washington earned his place in history by learning his lessons and using his ample intelligence to win the war. The stuff with the sword on horseback certainly occurred and makes for a good statue, but it’s not what ultimately got the job done.

But back to journalists: As a profession, there have been some black eyes over the years, but what I see most of the time are people working every day in the business of truth-telling. From the extraordinary Sy Hersh ” who broke the My Lai Massacre story many years ago to the Abu Ghraib scandal more recently ” to the small-town reporter who’s just trying to explain a council meeting decision to readers, my experience with journalists over the years has almost always been positive. Letter writers feel free to contact us and launch insults if we get something wrong, and they’ll accuse us of conspiring with one group or company or another if they don’t understand something ” and all of this we’re used to; we knew it going in and accept it.

And, for the most part, we don’t ask for much in return other than an occasional kind word from our editors or readers. We pick up an award now and again, but mostly our little “hero” moments come when we know we helped inform our community about something important. It may not be as dramatic as putting out a fire or coming home from the war minus a leg, but there’s a lot of satisfaction in putting the truth out there every week.

Alex Miller is responsible for the editorial oversight of the Vail Daily, Eagle Valley Enterprise and Vail Trail. He can be reached at 748-2920, or editor@vaildaily.com.


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