As you’ve likely read elsewhere (or perhaps even here), Anthony Shadid, generally considered to be the best Middle East reporter of the past decade or so, died yesterday from an asthma attack in Syria.
The deluge of sorrow-filled tributes and reminisces that have been written by other journalists already testify to how highly Shadid was regarded among his peers. But let me add a few words from a blogger’s perspective to explain how special he truly was.
I began blogging during the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in early 2003, partly out of a desire to understand what was really happening in the war. I was already familiar enough with the media to know this would take a lot of rigorous analysis and reading between the lines of officially sanctioned narratives — but in the case of one reporter, Anthony Shadid (then of the Washington Post), I kept finding that he was doing the job for me.
In late March, barely two weeks into the war, Shadid wrote a heartrending story about Iraqis’ reaction to the American onslaught and the resulting civilian casualties. In April came a profile of Muqtada as-Sadr, the young cleric who in a year’s time would be become the most visible opponent of the occupation.
But Shadid’s incisive brilliance was only just beginning to show itself. On June 2, the Post published a story that vividly demonstrated the delusions of the U.S. occupying army: as Thomas Ricks accompanied an American patrol through a Baghdad neighborhood, recording their satisfaction with what seemed to be a welcoming populace, Shadid followed the same route, talking in Arabic with Iraqis in their homes… and capturing their mix of concern and seething resentment. Then Shadid did it again at the end of June, revealing the mutual distrust and resentment between Iraqi police and the American soldiers who were supposed to be training them. That story ended with a local Iraqi resident saying:
There’s no security, there’s no stability in Iraq… I swear to God, things are going to get worse.
Further demonstrating the point, Shadid in late July uncovered a chilling incident in which a suspected U.S. informant was executed by his own father and older brother, under pressure from the rest of the village. The U.S. hadn’t even acknowledged yet that an insurgency had begun, but Shadid’s reporting had laid bare all of the tensions that would undermine the neocon dream of an American quasi-colony in Iraq.
The Judith Millers of the media world thrive on access to government power-brokers, and in exchange glibly tell the world the often-misleading (or downright false) stories those officials want to see told. Anthony Shadid was the exact opposite — he went to the ordinary people caught up in life-changing political events, and told the truth about it.
About a year ago, Shadid and some other New York Times journalists found themselves captured by pro-government forces while reporting on the uprising in Libya. Reflecting on his experience, he wrote afterward:
Over the years, all of us had seen men detained, blindfolded and handcuffed at places like Abu Ghraib, or corralled after some operation in Iraq or Afghanistan. Now we were the faceless we had covered perhaps too dispassionately. For the first time, we felt what it was like to be disoriented by a blindfold, to have plastic cuffs dig into your wrists, for hands to go numb.
Anthony Shadid was probably the least guilty of any American journalist of the sin he describes, but even in danger he was reminding himself to do better. That’s what made him valuable and unique, and probably irreplaceable.