Remembering James Foley and his work

We’ve written quite a bit about the murder of James Foley, the barbarism of his captors and killers, and what that means for American policy. Perhaps we should take a moment to reflect on the life of James Foley and the meaning of his work, too. We cannot fully understand the grievous offense of the ISIS butchery that killed him without knowing what was lost, and what really was attacked.


Let’s start with the extraordinarily gracious recollection of Foley by his parents yesterday afternoon:

Foley worked for GlobalPost as a foreign correspondent, and NBC News and GlobalPost collected Foley’s best work from the field in Syria and Libya before his abduction:

Jamie Dettmer offers a personal remembrance of his war-correspondent colleague for The Daily Beast:

I didn’t know James well—I would have liked very much an opportunity to know him better. We crossed paths several times in southern Turkey and northern Syria, coming from the war zone heading to safety or with heavier and darker step traveling the other way. We had drunk together—and with other colleagues—in a handful of bars in the southern Turkish town of Antakya or in the Liwan Hotel there.

We talked about our lives—hopes and fears, loves, successes, setbacks and failures. Being much older, my list was longer. We talked about what had led us to this point in our lives and why we do what we do. I warmed to him immediately—it was impossible not to—unless you are a demented ideologue who has lost normal human reactions. He was a biggish lad, with a boyish, slightly mischievous grin and thoughtfulness and consideration were seamed in his character.

Some have suggested that care for others came from his religious faith. That might well be, but I think it came also from deep within his emotional being—he wanted instinctively to connect with people and communicate with them, a great underpinning for journalism.

He came late to the profession, having been a teacher before, and when I learned that it didn’t surprise me. He was still fresh to the…well I was going to write “the business,” but for James, as for me, it isn’t really a business it is a vocation and that clinched my liking for this gentle but determined lad from the Granite State.

For James, journalism was bearing witness, especially when it comes to frontline coverage. He didn’t strike me like some among the young freelancers flocking to the Mideast—it wasn’t about having an experience, or play-acting the role or even using frontline reporting as a stepping-stone to a cushy reporting job back home. He believed in the importance of contributing to the first rough draft of history. Some may think that romantic nonsense. It isn’t.


That’s what was attacked with the abduction of Foley and other journalists. The barbarians of ISIS (and the oppressive thugs of Bashar al-Assad, and the fascist loyalists of Moammar Qaddafi before them) want to stop the world from knowing what they do, except for what they themselves want to proclaim. ISIS has other motives, to be sure, among them collecting ransoms — which the US refuses to pay, a point raised by former Taliban abductee David Rohde in  The Atlantic. But violence against journalists happens in no small part because those who do evil do not want their evil exposed, which is why being a foreign correspondent in areas like Syria and Libya is at once so dangerous and so necessary.

In my column today for The Fiscal Times, I remind readers that while we rightly critique reporters for bias and editors for manipulation when it occurs, we cannot forget the risks run by men and women like James Foley, either:

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. …

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. …

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.


“Courage,” C.S. Lewis wrote, “is the form that every virtue takes at its testing point.” James Foley demonstrated that in his work and his efforts to bring us those stories. While we debate how to respond to the barbaric evil of ISIS, we should also reflect on the courage it takes to do what Foley did. 

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