Remembering Anthony Shadid
In the flurry of news coverage of birth control and health care debates, of the European economic crisis and the GOP primaries, the tragic end of a truly inspiring career went relatively unnoticed. Anthony Shadid, foreign correspondent for papers such as the New York Times, Boston Globe and Associated Press, and winner of two Pulitzer prizes, passed away at the age of 43 in Syria this past week. With his death, the world of journalism has lost one of its most influential and respected figures.
The turmoil in the nation of Syria caused a great deal of speculation over the nature of his passing, but it was ultimately revealed that he has passed away from a fatal asthma attack. The circumstances of his time in Syria, however, exemplify the lengths Shadid went to in order to provide his particular brand of well-researched and heavily contextual reporting. The Assad regime places very strict controls on any and all journalists within the country, which tends to deprive them of a great deal of depth for reports, or forces reliance on second-hand sources. Shadid decided to go into Syria through work with groups of smugglers, entering the country through a poorly-guarded border with Turkey, in order to write his stories.
Anthony Shadid pursued the story of Syria’s worsening instability in an uncompromising way, despite the additional danger of traveling as an incognito journalist in a country rife with government-sponsored violence (and the risk to his personal health that accompanied this clandestine method of reporting). This was hardly the only danger he’d run into during his time as a foreign correspondent. He had to scramble to hide his equipment when his offices were raided by Hosni Mubarak’s thugs in Egypt during the Arab Spring, and about a decade ago was shot and wounded while in the West Bank. He faced danger regularly, but none could argue with the quality of his reporting, or his hard work in contextualizing and finding the complications in what all too often were presented as cut-and-dry stories on the Middle East.
My own personal introduction to his work was his coverage of the American invasion of Iraq and the ensuing nation-building efforts. As early as 2004, Shadid was covering the roots of sectarian strife in the country and the US military’s inability (or lack of will) in dealing with it. Two things struck me about the work he did – one then, and one in retrospect. At the time, it was stunning to see the quality of reporting that arises from extensive background work. Compared to the clipped AP snippets that seemed to be issuing forth on a regular basis, Shadid’s articles were prosaic, deep, complex, and contextual. They made historical connections that I rarely saw journalists attempt (though, to be fair, I was a mere high school student, so I hadn’t been exposed to the full canon of journalistic classics), and there was an overwhelming emphasis on collecting the opinions of regular individuals over authority figures.
Looking back, I realized that by doing all of the above – paying close attention to popular attitudes, looking into context and history - in his reporting, Shadid identified a bitter, dangerous and tragic conflict that ended up defining most of the conflict in Iraq, which we have euphemistically termed “sectarian strife.” But he did so well before this became the major talking point for the government and a focus for journalists. And in the way he delved into the complex roots and dynamics of such a conflict, he awakened my own interest in politics, world events, and journalism. Moreover, it was my introduction to how complex the world can be, and how dangerous excessive reductionism can be, whether we speak of Middle Eastern revolutions or engineering design. So while I want to let IIT know about the loss of one of the world’s most influential journalists of the decade (if not longer), I also want to pay my respects to an individual whose work shaped my own perspective. Here’s to a paragon of not only journalism, but critical thought.