Anthony Shadid was an astounding journalist.
By 43 he was legendary for his courage and lyrical, powerful reporting. He had received the Pulitzer Prize twice for his moving reports from the middle of the Iraq war and had built, as the Washington Post noted, “one of the most storied careers in modern American journalism.”
He had reported from the chaos of war zones and had survived multiple crises. In Libya he had been kidnapped, beaten, and held for six days. In Palestine he had survived an Israeli bullet fired at him from 25 feet away.
“They were looking to kill me,” Anthony said afterward. The bullet passed through his left shoulder, sheared off part of a vertebra, and exploded out his right shoulder. An inch difference would have left him paralyzed, a little further, dead.
But he survived, continued his evocative reports, and didn’t plan on getting killed. He had a wife and two young children, and used his experience to gauge what he could do and what was too foolishly risky to undertake.
Until his final trip.
His death in Syria on February 16, 2012 sent shock waves through newsrooms around the country. Numerous articles described his bravery, brilliance, and elegiac prose.
The Los Angeles Times called him “one of the most prolific and poetic correspondents to cover the Middle East” and compared him to World War II’s Ernie Pyle.
New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger stated about their star reporter: “Anthony was one of our generation’s finest reporters. He was also an exceptionally kind and generous human being.”
The Washington Post, where he had previously worked, called him “one of the most incisive and honored foreign correspondents of his generation.”
Even the White House mourned his loss. The press secretary read a statement on Air Force One and added his own comment: “Anthony Shadid was one of the best, perhaps the finest, foreign correspondent working today.”
But it turns out that his death wasn’t all that it seemed, and the newspapers and individuals who praised Anthony Shadid so lavishly are now ignoring what seems to have been his final request.
On June 23rd, explosive new information suddenly and unexpectedly came out halfway through a calm, thoughtful speech by Anthony’s close cousin, Dr. Edward Shadid of Oklahoma City. In an acceptance speech on behalf of the family at a banquet honoring Anthony, his cousin quietly described an awful scenario:
Just 11 months after Anthony’s deeply traumatic kidnapping, for which he received no counseling or treatment for possible PTSD, The New York Times insisted that Anthony illegally infiltrate Syria in a poorly planned, dangerously risky operation. His editors overruled Anthony’s objections and failed to provide equipment he had requested. When he then died of what his cousin suspects was a heart attack, the Times put out an inaccurate story that obscured the newspaper’s role in his death, while proclaiming him a hero and basking in the reflected glory.
Worst of all, Anthony’s cousin said, the subsequent narrative from former executive Bill Keller and others that “great journalists” always go into danger, “that’s what they do,” was setting up future journalists to take excessive, possibly lethal risks.
Dr. Shadid pointed out, “There is an inherent inequality of bargaining power between journalists and their editors. Commitment and a history of bravery can be exploited by editors and management, who are under their own pressure to meet production goals and achieve awards.”
During his speech at the annual American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee Convention in Washington DC and in interviews afterward, Anthony’s cousin gave new details about the incident, some of them differing significantly from the story given by the New York Times.
Dr. Shadid, who is a medical doctor and city councilman in Oklahoma City, revealed that a security advisor working for the Times had originally analyzed the newspaper’s plan for getting Anthony into Syria. The advisor determined it was too dangerous, and forbade him from going. Yet, six weeks later, after CNN had gained access, Times editors sent Anthony into the area, even though the security situation had grown worse in that time.
Anthony’s colleagues expressed surprise that his editors insisted he enter Syria, Dr. Shadid said, because Anthony had appeared on Syrian television and was a “wanted man.”
The night before Anthony left for the area, he spoke to Times editors over the phone in a conversation that included “screaming and slamming down the phone,” his cousin related.
When Anthony objected to the planned operation and the physical demands of the journey, Times foreign editor Joseph Kahn flippantly responded from his desk in New York, “It sounds like you’re going to get a lot of exercise on this assignment.” Anthony’s request for camping equipment for the trip was turned down.
Upon his arrival in Turkey, his departure point for illegally entering Syria, the Times plan immediately began to break down. Motorcycles had been planned for travel; they weren’t there. Smugglers that the Times had arranged to take Anthony and a photographer into Syria were also, it turned out, going to be smuggling in crates of ammunition.
At this point, Dr. Shadid said, Anthony called his wife and “gave his last haunting directive: ‘If anything happens to me, I want the world to know the New York Times killed me.’”
He said that after Anthony’s death, the Times put out a story saying that Anthony “died of asthma and that his body was carried out heroically by a journalist.” According to Dr. Shadid, “That never happened.”
He provided details about the immediate circumstances of Anthony’s death that he said were omitted from the Times narrative. (The Times has said that Anthony’s death was brought on by an asthma attack triggered by exposure to horses.)
Immediately preceding his death, Dr. Shadid said, Anthony and his accompanying photographer had been confronted with a pack of barking dogs. They were very afraid this had given away their position, and Anthony asked that they stop. The photographer, however, put his arm around Anthony’s back, insisting that they continue and get away from the barking dogs. Anthony collapsed and was immediately unconscious, according to Dr. Shadid, “in a manner that is more consistent with a heart attack than an asthma attack.”
In a later interview Dr. Shadid continued to question the asthma version, saying that the family has never seen the autopsy report. In addition to his own medical practice, Dr. Shadid comes from a multi-generational family of physicians. His relative, Dr. Michael Shadid, also from Oklahoma, was the author of “Crusading Doctor: My Fight for Cooperative Medicine” and has been called the “father of the health maintenance organization.”
The main point of Dr. Shadid’s speech, made both at its beginning and end, was the importance of learning from Anthony’s death and protecting future reporters – both from a narrative that promotes excessive risk-taking and by providing “prudent, industry-wide protections for our correspondents.”
He called for mandatory physical exams and CPR training for reporters going into war zones. His experiences with Anthony and other correspondents, he said, led him to believe that “there is an epidemic of PTSD” throughout the industry.
Anthony’s kidnapping 11 months before – during which he had been beaten and subjected to mock executions – had been insufficiently addressed by the Times, Dr. Shadid said. He had been sent back out into the field three weeks later without counseling or treatment.
Burying the story along with the body
So far, none of Dr. Shadid’s information has been reported by the New York Times, Associated Press, or a multitude of other major national news media that headlined his death, though it has been covered by Politico, smaller outlets, and online sources, including Washington Post and LA Times blogs.
Queries to the New York Times are met with an official statement denying that the paper pressures journalists into war zones. The statement addresses none of the details raised by Dr. Shadid. Foreign Editor Joseph Kahn has not returned phone calls.
It is disappointing that the Times is sticking to a version in which it can take credit for a prize-winning journalist who allegedly died in a glorious quest to get the story, rather than revealing allegations that he fell in a sloppy plan put together by editors eager for scoop journalism and who overruled their seasoned reporter’s objections.
And it is also disappointing that other news organizations have similarly opted not to cover this new information.
The Associated Press, where Anthony worked early in his career, is the world’s largest wire service and is the major source of international news for American media. It has two bureaus in Washington DC that send out multiple stories a day.
After Anthony’s death, AP Senior Managing Editor John Daniszewski had called him a brilliant colleague who “was calm under fire and quietly daring, the most admired of his generation of foreign correspondents.” AP Vice President and Executive editor Kathleen Carroll had also mourned his passing: “Anthony was not only a brilliant journalist, he was a people magnet … whose marvelous work and generous heart will be missed in equal measure.”
Yet, AP has failed to issue a single news report telling the public of the new revelations about Anthony’s death. Its Corporate Communications department, charged with responding to inquiries from the public, does not reply to emails or phone calls on the subject.
On Monday, two days after the Saturday night speech, editors at AP’s Washington DC bureau reportedly were talking about what to do, and decided to do nothing. By Wednesday AP’s New York editors, who are reportedly in charge of what goes out on the topic, were saying that the story was “stale,” seemed to have “run its course,” and that they had “no plans to cover it.” Neither Carroll nor Daniszewski returned phone calls.
It appears that Anthony’s family is conflicted about discussing this publicly. His cousin, who was introduced at the banquet as having been “like a brother” to Anthony, made his public speech on behalf of the family with many of its members present. Among them was Anthony’s young widow, herself a Times reporter, who had earlier said that she was “a little mad at journalism” but had never elaborated further. However, after Politico and some others reported on the speech, she tweeted that she would not participate in a public discussion of Anthony’s passing and did not approve of such a discussion. She has not denied any of Dr. Shadid’s assertions.
Dr. Shadid, however, apparently feels that such a discussion is necessary in order to better protect upcoming journalists from an industry that provides them too few protections. Such protections, he said in his speech, would be neither costly nor difficult, but will only occur if enough people call for them.
There is no doubt that the circumstances preceding Anthony’s death and his cousin’s public revelations about them are highly newsworthy: they add new information on the widely reported death of an extremely significant figure; dispute allegations contained in a multitude of previous news stories; provide a troubling look at how one of the nation’s most important newspapers treated its reporter; contain a powerful condemnation of that newspaper said to have been made by the deceased journalist; and, probably most importantly, convey information that could potentially prevent future tragic deaths.
Anthony’s death has robbed the future of reporting that could etch distant, tragic events on the world’s consciousness. A New York Times article awhile back included one if his transcendent passages:
“In the Lebanese town of Qana, where Israeli bombs caught their victims in the midst of a morning’s work, we saw the dead standing, sitting, looking around. The village, its voices and stories, plates and bowls, letters and words, its history, had been obliterated in a few extended moments that splintered a quiet morning.”
Anthony Shadid’s death was a profound and enduring loss. Quite likely, Americans will now learn less about the Middle East and the carnage being visited upon its people. The gifted, luminous writing that conveyed its minutiae, tragedies, and human dimension in words unlike any others is now forever gone.
Such a loss is made even sadder by the discovery that it seems to have been so unnecessary. Worse still, is to find a media world that exploits such brilliance, pats itself on the back for journalism’s heroism, weeps great tears at a colleague’s death, and then buries the truth along with the body when unpleasant details about a powerful newspaper emerge.
Saddest of all, is the likelihood that the burying of this story, along with recommendations of how news corporations could better protect their journalists, will lead to future burials of brilliant, courageous young journalists seeking to follow in Anthony’s footsteps – and who follow him in ways they did not expect or deserve.
Alison Weir is Executive Director of If Americans Knew and President of the Council for the National Interest.