James Foley Did Not Die in Vain

James Foley Did Not Die in Vain

REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Earlier this year, I had a unique opportunity to participate in some small measure in a transformational event that took place more than a dozen years ago. Regnery rereleased the seminal Bernard Goldberg book Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News, a broadside against what would be called the “mainstream media” and its ingrained political slant. The publisher, which is owned by my employer, asked me to write a new forward for the paperback version. 

Given that Bias played no small role in my efforts to become a political and media analyst, I jumped at the chance. “Bias provided a clear look at the patterns of editorial bias in choice of stories, journalistic bias in the way the stories were written and presented, the biased assumptions that skews the research into the stories, and more,” I wrote. “He [Goldberg] also identified the root of all the bias: the lack of cultural and political diversity in the newsrooms and editorial castes.” That was true in 1996, when Goldberg first pointed it out in a Wall Street Journal column, in 2001 when Bias first hit bookstores and inspired grassroots media critics, as it is today. 

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However, that is only part of the story, or rather part of the context in which the media operates. Most of the time, we don’t think of reporters as risk takers, and most of the time they aren’t. The vast majority of news and analysis we receive originates in relatively dull beats at government offices or on phone calls to various newsmakers and their staffs.

More comes from research through dry volumes of data or hard-to-access documents. All of those efforts produce important journalism, providing critical if not exceptionally sensational information that informs our judgments and shapes the leadership of our communities. 

For some reporters, though, bringing us the information we need about a dangerous world means putting their lives on the line for those stories. That’s especially true of war correspondents, where the risk of death and capture have always been part of the job. In twenty-first century conflicts, that increasingly carries the risk of being captured not by forces of one nation or another, but by terrorist groups that operate at levels of barbarity that more closely resemble the seventh century than the twenty-first. 

The ghastly death of James Foley reminded us this week of those risks taken by journalists on our behalf. Foley had been captured in November 2012 while trying to cover the civil war in Syria, which at the time had not quite captured the American public’s rapt attention. The Obama administration had called for Bashar al-Assad’s resignation a year earlier, but the news media was much more focused at that time on the presidential election in the US and the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. Ironically, Foley had only recently won his release from capture in Libya by loyalists of Moammar Qaddafi. Foley put his life at risk once again in Syria to tell the story of the war and its impact on the people in the region. 

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The sheer barbarism of Foley’s murder makes this lesson in risk all the more memorable, but Foley is hardly alone. The Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that 70 journalists have been killed in Syria since 1992 attempting to report on conditions there, and 80 more abducted. Currently, at least 20 are still missing just in Syria, “many held by the Islamic State,” the same group that videotaped Foley’s beheading for its propaganda.  

That only puts Syria in 5th place on CPJ’s “impunity” list; Iraq tops the list, thanks to the conflict driven by ISIS in both countries. Somalia, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka round out the top five. 

Foreign correspondents routinely put themselves at risk, even when perhaps not intending to do so. CBS correspondent Lara Logan suffered a sexual assault and beating by a mob on the streets of Cairo, Egypt during the Arab Spring unrest. NBC’s Richard Engel escaped his captors after five days in Syria, managing to make it back to Turkey. New York Times reporter David Rohde spent seven months in Taliban custody while trying to cover the war in Afghanistan, eventually escaping in June 2009

Finally, Daniel Pearl gave his life attempting to cover the rise of al-Qaeda in Pakistan at the hands of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11 who personally beheaded The Wall Street Journal reporter and bragged about it. 

Related: With Iraq in Ruins, ISIS Turns to Genocide 

Here in the US, some assignments carry a degree of risk, even if they may not meet the same level of danger as in these conflict-riven areas. Reporters in Ferguson have received plenty of criticism for their actions in the last couple of weeks, with some merit, for exploiting the situation for self-promotion. Some, like Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post and my friend Kerry Picket of Breitbart News, were arrested just for doing their jobs; other reporters have been tear-gassed and assaulted by both sides in an attempt to cover a dangerous situation in an otherwise normal American suburb. 

None of this negates valid concerns about media bias and editorial manipulation, of course, nor does it immunize reporters from scrutiny and criticism over how they do their jobs. Everything Goldberg wrote in Bias remains just as trenchant and applicable now as it did then. 

But Foley’s death should remind us that we owe reporters at least the respect due those who take risks to keep us informed and appreciation over the fact that they do those jobs at all given the dangers they face in doing so. When we read and watch these reports, we should watch with a critical eye for bias and misreporting, and with a grateful heart to have access to those dangerous environments and the stories of those impacted by war and strife.  

James Foley certainly thought there was enough value in that to risk his life to tell those stories. Rest in peace, Mr. Foley, and thank you for your work on behalf of those whose stories needed to be told, and those who needed to hear them. 

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