The worst type of foreign correspondent is the cowboy, the reckless reporter who makes up for mediocre journalism skills by taking excessive and attention-getting physical risks. Saner members of the foreign press corps identify these individuals quickly, and avoid traveling with them in war zones. The danger to one’s very life is too high.
Anthony Shadid was not a cowboy, and that is what makes his untimely death in Syria yesterday all the more unfair, in addition to being horrifically tragic. For Anthony — a perceptive reporter, brilliant writer, and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner — the work was never about himself or the accolades he would rightly win for his work. It was about other people, and Anthony lived to give a voice to those whose stories would otherwise go untold.
He took risks, to be sure, but only in pursuit of finding the truth, of finding the regular Iraqis or Israelis or Palestinians or Egyptians whose lives and families were upended by violence. And when Anthony was himself the victim of violence, he absorbed it with some humor and an astonishing lack of anger. Shot in the shoulder in Ramallah in 2002 (suffering a wound that would have paralyzed him had it been an inch or so closer to his spine), Anthony was upbeat as he talked to our worried Boston Globe Washington Bureau by phone. "Yeah, I’m sorry I missed my weekend duty," Anthony told us, referring to the rotating (and hated) obligation to monitor Washington news over the weekend. All he wanted was to get back into the field and report.
After Sept. 11, all of us in the bureau worked nearly every day to cover the aftermath, especially the US invasion of Afghanistan. But Anthony, who spoke fluent Arabic, was already looking way ahead. He read Arabic-language websites and news, and had a canny understanding of national security signals. They want to go into Iraq, he told me just months after Sept. 11, already looking distressed at the pain of another war. The neoconservatives in the Bush administration were building a case, determined to open another front. It seemed both plausible but risky at the same time, and several of us wondered whether the administration would take that chance. Anthony knew, and would find himself in Iraq to report the story.
And for Anthony, it was always about the people — not the generals or administration officials or foreign leaders making decisions about war and peace, but about the children and mothers and shop-keepers whose entire lives and homes were being disrupted, often with tragic loss. This week, it is the loss of Anthony that is the tragic story. The world of journalism has lost a brilliant writer and friend. A family has lost a son, a father, and a husband. And the people of the Middle East have lost their most dedicated and brave story-teller.
Susan Milligan is a former Globe White House correspondent and Washington-based freelance writer.