It’s that time of year again to reflect on what the 4th of July means to us here in the USA.
We are fortunate to live in a country where we are protected by the First Amendment to speak freely through various mediums, including radio.
Gene Burns, an unforgettable icon in radio history, believed that talk radio played a crucial role in exercising and preserving our First Amendment Right.
We advertised with Gene for many years when he was with KGO and had the pleasure of meeting him on multiple occasions. In tribute to free speech and in honor of Gene Burns who is dearly missed in the radio world, we are posting a portion of an interview conducted with him in 2003 with a link to the full interview. We were able to find very limited audio for Gene Burns, but a reading of the Declaration of Independence seems appropriate and we found a few YouTube videos also.
Interview with Gene Burns
JCP: These days, it seems a lot of people want their public figures to come down either for or against their particular point of view. However, you seem like you’re very, very cautious in terms of thinking about what’s going on, and trying to respect difference perspectives?
GB: Predictability is boring. And since I am a performer, if I become completely predictable, I’ll become boring. And I don’t think that’s healthy in my line of work. I also tend to be iconoclastic. In fact, back in the late 60s, I got into a huge political battle when I worked in Baltimore, and somebody who was on the other side of the issue called me an iconoclast, meaning it as a disparaging remark, and I thought it was a great compliment. There’s nothing wrong with deciding every issue on its merits. And libertarians, of course, tend to be very conservative fiscally, economically, and fairly liberal socially, which makes us very difficult to pin down. Which is okay by me. I can’t, I would never want to live my life, let alone prosecute my profession in a situation in which a set of predetermined criteria automatically decided what I thought about something. That’s mindless. What I think about something is what I think about it. If it fits somebody’s idea of what they thought I might say, that’s okay, but if it doesn’t that’s also okay.
JCP: Do you ever find yourself getting frustrated with debates about patriotism and what is or is not patriotic?
GB: I lived through the Vietnam war, and was a talk show host during the Vietnam war, and so I’ve heard these arguments all before, and I’ve seen them all before, and what I do try to do is warn people not to make the same mistakes as we made then. Like hating the troops because the war went badly, because of bad public policy or that sort of thing. That’s a big danger, but I can hear the arguments echoing down the corridors of time, because I heard the same arguments back in the late 60s, early 70s.
I said to my general manager at the Metro Media station I worked at in Baltimore, one day at lunch, I was sort of joking and I said “You ought to brace yourself because I’m going to change my opinion on the war.” I had sort of been a begrudging supporter of the war, not because I knew much about it, but because the government said we had to be there. So I guess we had to be there? But then the more I looked at it the more I decided the war was a disaster, so I told him, “I’m going to change my opinion and come out against the war, and you’re likely to get a huge backlash from the audience.” And he said “That’s okay” and I said “Are you sure? Yeah, the only thing I haven’t done that I could do is go to Vietnam and see it for myself.” And he said “Well/ why don’t you do that?” and I said “Because it’s pretty expensive and I don’t want to take all that time off from work.” and he said “Well we’ll send you. You can do reports.” So the news director, who was a supporter of the war, and I (after I’d decided my change, but before I announced it) went off on special assignment to Vietnam, and then a year later, I did the same thing in the Middle East. We were in Vietnam for about a month and a half, and we decided to broaden the trip to take a look at American troop involvement abroad. We were in Korea, Japan and Thailand, and we went right on around the world to Frankfurt. We went first to Lebanon, and then to Germany and the NATO headquarters in Brussels and then back to New York.
JCP: Has traveling to Vietnam and the Middle East, and experiencing these places first hand, influenced the type of news formats you rely on for information?
GB: One of the big realizations of the Vietnam War days was that the American media had been reporting an American war that happened to be taking place in Vietnam, and the only way to understand a conflict like that is to report the Vietnamese war, because it’s their war, even though we were involved in it. Once we started to do that, that’s when American public opinion began to change. That, coupled with the fact that too many body bags came home to too many front porches of homes in America. When it became obvious that the government had lied significantly about the circumstances of the war in Southeast Asia, it was inevitable that the country would change its opinion. When I was in Saigon, there was a briefing every day at the Military Command Headquarters, MACV, Military Assistance Command Vietnam, in Saigon at 4:45 in the afternoon, and it was laughingly referred to, even by the correspondents there, as the “4:45 follies.” Nobody believed anything they were told, in fact at one point a journalist added up the enemy’s body count that the military had given us, and we had killed everybody in North Vietnam three times. It had no connection to reality. And then you’d go out in the field and talk to our troops. I don’t think we’d been there more than five hours before we just looked at each other and said this is hopeless, this is a nightmare, how did we get stuck in this?
You come away from an experience like that thinking the first thing you loose is your naÃ¯vetÃ© about your own government, you realize that if they’re not lying, they’re nuancing what they tell you to fit their policy. In those days there was I.F. “Izzie” Stone who used to write a newsletter saying the war was wrong from day one, and he was called everything a man could be called – a traitor, etc. It turned out that Izzie Stone had it figured out long before traditional media had it figured out. You quickly learn that just because someone is a communist doesn’t mean they’re lying, just as the corollary is true, just because someone is a tried and true American doesn’t mean they’re telling you the truth. You have to apply a bit more vigorous standard of study to an issue as important as war to come out with either the right answer – whatever that can be defined as, and usually after the war ends, we decide what the right answer was – or the answer with which you’re most comfortable.
JCP: How do you feel about the recent work of embedded journalists?
GB: Embedded journalism is very good, and to some degree, bad. Very good because it’s astonishing that you could literally watch the war. Vietnam was called the “living room war” because American families would sit down to dinner just about the time Walter Cronkite would come on, and the first fifteen minutes of every newscast was about what was happening in the war. A lot of that was battlefield footage, and so we said that was the “living room war.” This is really the living room war. With this war, you have correspondents with video phones talking to you as troops are moving down the highway. I think that’s good, it gives people a sense of what war is all about, more than they’ve ever had. Although you’ll never get the smell of war, one of the dimensions that is most compelling.
On the other hand, the one thing wrong with embedded correspondents is that they’re operating under rules set by the Pentagon. In a sense, the Pentagon is controlling them by embracing them. I don’t think that’s big problem, but it’s a factor I think you have to take into account when you think about how good or bad imbedded correspondents are.
JCP: And where do you usually find the information that you rely on?
GB: I’ve been at this for forty years, and the brain is a marvelous instrument, and if you keep it working halfway decently it stores a lot of information. I get my information by reading. You have to read. I read several newspapers each day, and magazines and books, and you store that information. Some of it seems quite silly and irrelevant, but you never know when a single piece of information stored in that computer of the brain will suddenly become relevant or important or help you make a point. You just have to read and study. I discuss these issues three hours a day, five days a week, and the dining issues three hours a week, so if every American discussed contemporary affairs three hours a day five days a week, we’d be a much different people. But most people don’t have time to do that, but that’s what I do for a living.