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Jul 03 2012

Breathless: Why did Anthony Shadid Die?

A death of a journalist always hits our large community of correspondents hard and the death of a celebrated war reporter like Anthony Shadid, hits even harder. Shadid, 43, was a brave and unique journalist and winner of two Pulitzer prizes for his war reporting from Iraq. He was injured a number of times in the course of his professional life, including a near-fatal bullet injury in the West Bank city of Ramallah in 2002. He died in Syria on 16 February this year and this is, pretty much, where the facts in consensus regarding the circumstances of his death end.

The first news of his death described it as caused by a fit of asthma, a condition Shadid had lived with for years. The fit seemed to have been prompted by his allergy to horses and the presence of horses in close proximity to where he collapsed. His habit of smoking could have contributed to the worsening of his condition.

But in a speech on June 23rd, during an acceptance speech on behalf of the family at a banquet honouring Shadid, his cousin, Dr. Edward Shadid of Oklahoma City, challenged all the facts regarding Anthony Shadid’s death, from the medical causes to the degree of his willingness to carry out the mission he was given by his editors at the New York Times.

“Just 11 months after Anthony’s deeply traumatic kidnapping, for which he received no counselling 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.” According to Dr. Shadid, Anthony told his wife before he left for Syria: “The phone call the night before he left (Turkey, for Syria), there was screaming and slamming on the phone in discussions with editors,” Dr. Shadid said.

“It was at that time that Anthony called his wife and gave his last haunting directive that if ‘anything happens to me I want the world to know The New York Times killed me’.”

Dr. Shadid claims that Anthony refused to go on medical grounds but was told by the foreign editor that he would “get a lot of exercise” on his mission. It is also argued that he asked for certain camping equipment for his journey and was refused.

In his speech Dr. Shadid, who is a medical doctor, also argued that the symptoms Anthony suffered from prior to his death were more compatible with a heart attack than with an asthmatic fit.

Dr. Shadid points a finger at the prevailing gang-ho ethos among and about journalists, according to which the good journalist is up for anything and is more then willing to risk his or her life for a story. He quoted former NYT executive Bill Keller and others who maintain that “great journalists” always go into danger, “that’s what they do.” Dr Shadid also argued that Anthony had an argument with his editor about his travel arrangements and camping equipment.

The New York Times denies those allegations. In a statement following Dr. Shadid’s speech the paper said:

“Anthony’s death was a tragedy and we appreciate the enduring grief that his family feels. With respect, we disagree with Ed Shadid’s version of the facts.  The Times does not pressure reporters to go into combat zones. Anthony was an experienced, motivated correspondent. He decided whether, how and when to enter Syria and was told by his editors, including on the day of the trip, that he should not make the trip if he felt it was not advisable for any reason.”

Eric Wemple of the Washington Post presented a snippet of the view of Anthony Shadid’s wife Nada Bakri to CNN saying that she is “a little bit mad with journalism this can hardly, in itself, be seen as a direct accusation against anybody in particular.

Tyler Hicks, who accompanied Shadid on his last story, told Matt Pearce of the LA Times:

“We both campaigned very hard to go on this assignment,” which seems to contradict Dr. Shadid’s claim that Anthony was reluctant to go.

It is, of course, impossible to get a clear picture of Anthony Shadid’s last days out of this jigsaw of statements.

Was Dr. Shadid’s speech, despite reports of its measured and level headed nature, an understandable outburst of a pained family member, or a damning depiction of the pressure staff journalists undergo to risk their lives in order to keep their jobs? The future might bring further evidence either way. But he no doubt left behind a legacy of courageous and uncompromising reporting under fire.

1 comment

  1. Henry

    This was another shockingly sad day for our profession. Our thoughts are with the family and the families of other journalists working in dangerous environments, conflict or not. His work was vital to tell the world of the horrors in Syria. We must never forget journalists who put themselves at risk to tell the stories and expose the truth. Much of the work is soul destroying, but without it, the world would be a darker place.

    Freedom is built from truth, journalists are our eyes in the world.

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