Anthony Shadid: An immeasurable loss

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. I am re-posting our last conversation from two years ago, with utmost admiration of Anthony Shadid and sympathy with his young family.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Anthony Shadid. (60 minutes, 36 mb mp3)

I find it almost painful to come to the States… I tell you, part of me is convinced that the legacy of this war is that Americans come away thinking we figured out how to win wars like this. If there’s a worse lesson you could take away from it, I’m willing to hear it, but I think it’s just spectacular that we don’t appreciate the devastation that has been wrought in Iraq over the past 7 or 8 years. It’s just spectacular. To my mind the society has been destroyed at some level. Is it going to turn out alright, in 10 years? Or 20 years? Or 30 years? You know, it may. It doesn’t feel that way to me right now. It feels as precarious, as dangerous, as unsettled as it ever has. In fact, it reminds me of 2003 in some ways. There was an incredible amount arrogance that went into this entire experience on the part of journalists, on the part of policy makers and the military. There wasn’t even a desire to learn. It does give you pause.

Anthony Shadid in conversation with Chris Lydon in Cambridge, April 22, 2010.

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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