"His polished, sometimes even poetic prose evokes a sense of curiosity and lament. In response to his family’s silence—and to the silence of a whole people still shellshocked by their grim treatment—Kalajian has become a professional storyteller and an excellent one at that." Kirkus Reviews

Sunday, August 24, 2014

James Foley, determined journalist, deserves to be remembered for our sake as well as for his

No assignment in journalism matches the glamour or glory of war correspondent in the public mind, even if the reality has never been so romantic.

From Kipling to Hemingway, we have been fascinated by the image of the fearless reporter dodging shot and shell. Ernie Pyle might be as revered as those giants if he'd had the chance to write his memoirs or perhaps a novel instead of being shot through the head on a Pacific island near the end of World War II.

Our image of war-time reporting changed along with our image of war and warriors during America's tour of Vietnam, when TV crews joined print photographers in delivering graphic evidence of the war's ugliness that jolted America's confidence as well as our sense of fairness.

The wars that followed have seen several significant changes that make today's war reporting more challenging for both journalists and the public. Among the most significant is the United States government's determined effort to control coverage by restricting access to war zones and vital information.

Instead of pushing back, newspapers and networks have slashed staffs and reduced coverage as they struggle to survive in a new and complicated media age.

The result is striking: America has been at war constantly and energetically for more than a decade, from big wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to a satellite war in Pakistan to sub-wars in Libya and God-knows-where-else, but on most days your morning paper or evening newscast is unlikely to disturb you with more than a brief update before moving on to the weather forecast.

Yet real and important reporting continues, much of it conducted by journalists working independently or for media outlets in places as foreign to us as our war zones. 

They plunge into combat without the cover of our armed forces, or any armed forces. Many get paid only when a story is aired or published, and they don't get paid much. No sick pay, no vacation, no pension. They take big risks for little reward except the certainty that they are doing something important.

Some are activists as much as journalists, people who believe they are aiding the cause of peace by exposing the horrors of war and the excesses of extremists who promote it.

James Foley was one of these remarkably resilient and determined freelance journalists. You probably never heard of him until news broke in mid-August that he'd been beheaded by Islamic State terrorists who posted a video of his murder on the Internet.

I'd never heard of him either. At least, I didn't think so until I read the stories and realized I'd read about his capture in Libya in 2011 and his disappearance in Syria a year later.

I just didn't remember his name. Did you?

It's easy to understand why he wasn't a household name: Foley did much of his reporting for Global Post, an American news service that provides reports from hot spots around the world to a number of news outlets including PBS as well as some broadcast networks and newspapers.

In other words, he was doing the work that just a few years ago would have been done by crews employed directly by each of those same news outlets.

Foley did all of it, including photography and reporting, damned well. Click this link to see some of his work at Global Post's site, and be sure to watch the video of Foley talking about his capture by Gaddafi forces in Libya. Fellow journalist Anton Hemmerl was killed, and Foley was held for 44 days. When he was released, he insisted on going back into the field.

It's clear he was no naive idealist or glory-seeking adventurer. He understood the risks and he did his job, regardless.

The war in Syria, where Foley was taken prisoner by Isis, is as confounding as it is heartbreaking. It is not a simple good guy-bad guy conflict between rebels and the government but a complicated mess of competing groups and interests.

Foley's coverage from Aleppo, the country's largest city, was particularly illuminating in that regard. He reported on rebels threatening to burn the city, and he stayed to show that they did just that. Then he ducked bombs dropped by the government to show the devastating effect on civilians trapped in their path.

Foley wasn't done in by those bombs or a stray shard of glass or even a sniper's bullet. He was murdered. That's important to note, not because it's so unusual but because it isn't. The Committee to Protect Journalists tallied 70 journalists killed last year, and 32 so far this year. 

One in four were murdered.

Foley deserves to be remembered for more than the gruesome manner of his death, and not because people who have no real idea who he was or what he did are trying to co-opt his name and image to rally support for a wider war.

He should be remembered for taking extraordinary risks on behalf of everyone who feels the need to know more about the events changing and shaping our world.

That should be all of us.

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