On My Mind: Remembering Anthony Shadid

Reporters are driven by a desire to get to the heart of the stories with clarity and honesty.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Shadid 390 (photo credit: REUTERS/Turkish Foreign Ministry/Handout)
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Shadid 390
(photo credit: REUTERS/Turkish Foreign Ministry/Handout)
Anthony Shadid was not a household name in the United States. Most readers of newspapers likely do not notice the byline on a news article, unless the writer is a regular columnist or the piece is deemed offensive or controversial.
Shadid, however, was solid, straightforward and committed to exposing what is really taking place in the Arab world today. New York Times readers, and others, already miss him.
His premature death, at age 43, while on assignment in Syria, was a shocker. For someone who regularly read his dispatches with anticipation, I was deeply saddened. It is a tragedy for his family, for the Times, for his readers, and ultimately for those Arabs, Syrians in particular, who have depended on Shadid’s determination to tell their stories. His reportage summoned empathy for the victims of the Bashar Assad regime, the most bloodthirsty of today’s Arab leaders.
Yet, as I shared this disturbing news with others, many, not recognizing him, did not react with similar sorrow. Too bad, for we will be less informed about the unfolding tragedies across the Arab world.
Moreover, Shadid’s untimely passing came in the same week as the death of Whitney Houston captivated Americans and dominated media coverage.
Hard for a journalist with two Pulitzer prizes to compete with an entertainment or sports celebrity.
I never had the chance to meet Shadid. Perhaps we could have found time during the planned speaking tour for his new book, House of Stone, about his ancestral home in Lebanon. We could have met for coffee, or hosted him, as we’ve done with other Times reporters, for a breakfast briefing with knowledgeable, inquisitive American Jews at AJC headquarters.
The opportunity to meet American foreign correspondents, especially ones based in the Middle East, to hear their perspectives on the region and the challenges they face in daily reporting is valuable. We would have learned directly the exceptional advantages Shadid brought to his journalism mission. Passionate reporting was his elixir.
He was one of the few American journalists fluent in Arabic. Another is the Times correspondent currently based at the UN, Neil MacFarquhar, who previously covered the entire Arab world from his perch in Cairo, and continues to visit the region for reporting.
The Middle East is too big for a single, skilled, journalist. MacFarquhar grew up in Libya. Shadid was born in Oklahoma City to Lebanese immigrants.
American reporters with firsthand experience in the Arab world are more comfortable with the culture and thinking of those societies. They should be sensitive to the nuances of political discussions and developments. Shadid’s insights have been critical to helping Americans understand the fast-moving events in what has been a highly tumultuous and uncertain period, popularly called the “Arab Spring,” but has increasingly seemed much darker, an “Arab Winter.” Foreign correspondents, especially those sent into war zones, are a special breed, but due to budget cuts they are declining in numbers. Apart from newswire services, few American media outlets maintain bureaus around the world. The Times is one of the last.
And the dangers to those practicing the craft are real. Shadid traversed the region fearlessly, covering the Iraq war, on to Libya, where he was kidnapped and abused, and then to the heart of bestiality, Syria, though he managed to successfully enter and leave that country surreptitiously several times, without harm. It was a severe asthma attack, not Assad’s bullets, that felled Shadid last week.
In the past year others have been victimized.
Notably, Lara Logan of CBS TV was seized by hooligans near Cairo’s Tahrir Square, held captive, sexually assaulted, and accused of being a Jew, as if that was a special sin.
The 2002 abduction and execution in Pakistan of Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was Jewish, remains one of the most gruesome examples of the dangers.
Still, these reporters are driven by a desire to get to the heart of the stories with clarity and honesty.
After all, truth is the first casualty of war. Indefatigable foreign correspondents keep the truth alive.
Nowhere is the tragedy of the failing “Arab Spring” more calamitous than in Assad’s Syria. “I don’t think I’d ever seen something like what I saw in Syria,” Shadid told National Public Radio (NPR) in December. “You’re dealing with a government that’s shown very little restraint in killing its own people to put down an uprising.” As Shadid’s body, with the help of the Times photographer accompanying him, was carried across the border to Turkey, away from Syrian forces, the Assad regime’s outrages reached new heights as they mercilessly killed hundreds more.
With Shadid’s passing there is a void of reason in explaining the Middle East that will be difficult, yet necessary, to fill.
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.