An immeasurable loss

Christopher Lydon of the excellent Radio Open Source pays tribute to Anythony Shadid.

The death of the reporter Anthony Shadid in Syria — apparently of an acute asthma attack — is a tragic blow to our hope of grasping the Arab turmoil, also to the flickering idea of straight journalism. Three dimensions of our loss come immediately to mind. First, Anthony Shadid (with Nir Rosen on my honor roll) was the rarest instance of a mainstream reporter who gave some of his heart to people on the ground suffering through war in Iraq and chaos in North Africa. Second, in Iraq where he’d won two Pulitzers, he framed his work in the understanding that what American force was about was not liberating Iraq, much less democratizing it, but about destroying a country. Third, he had the temerity to speak with us about one further tragedy: that the honored brand of journalism he practiced had shockingly little impact on American consciousness…

Anthony Shadid won his second Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for his unusual Washington Post pieces from Iraq — personal horror stories, most of them, about the war’s toxic effects on ordinary Iraqis. Underlying our conversation was an awkward question: was anybody reading him?

Shadid was a natural storyteller whose Oklahoma boyhood and Lebanese family roots added his own humanity to big-time journalism. He had an eye for gentle details of Arab social life. “Lunch for a stranger, any stranger, was requisite” was a typical Shadid aside in print. He was the rarity among American reporters in Iraq who let himself and his readers feel the pain of plain Arabs.

“When you’re in Baghdad,” he said, “it’s almost overwhelming, the sense that this society has been broken… Everyone you meet there has lost a relative or a friend, every single person. When you think about the scope of the bloodshed, it’s breathtaking. The war is over, but it’s not over. It’s legacy is not over… We won’t know for a generation what we’ve done to Iraq, and that’s putting it optimistically.”

Anthony Shadid was in transit two Springs ago through Cambridge, Massachusetts where he and his wife Nada Bakri, also a Times correspondent, had just delivered their first child. Shadid was talking — fast! — here about the vicious circle of war; about the news industry’s role in exoticizing, then dehumanizing the Middle East; about his hero Ryszard Kapuscinski, who famously mixed fact and fiction; about Shadid’s own switch late last year from the Washington Post to the New York Times, for which he’d be writing again soon from Baghdad, then all over North Africa, through his own brief captivity during the civil war in Libya. The question before the Arab Spring was: would the Times indulge Anthony Shadid, and us, in his long, lingering village sagas? He worried a bit about being the last survivor of a golden age of foreign correspondence. Was there still room for ambition in the newspaper game? Are the readers still there? He had the nerve to dismiss objectivity as an absurd standard in journalism. “I’ve always found it more interesting,” he said, “to imagine that I’m out there to answer a question I’ve been asking myself.”

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