I lost a college friend. The world lost one of the best journalists on the planet. His family lost a son, a brother, a husband, and a father. His name was Anthony Shadid.
The journalism world has been mourning his loss, but celebrating the ferocity of his talent and the humbleness of his human spirit. These qualities endeared him to the people whose lives he touched. There were clearly many.
We lost Anthony to an asthma attack while he was in the field in Syria reporting for The New York Times. It is a stunning blow to the journalism community. It comes at a time when journalism needs heroes.
Anthony was a two-time Pulitzer winner for The Washington Post and most recently the Middle East correspondent for The New York Times. His journalism colleagues throughout his life celebrated him for his human-centered prose, bravery and devotion to story telling.
Anthony escaped death many times. He was shot on the West Bank. He survived a kidnapping in Libya. His death was unexpected despite so many other times family and friends expected certain death on his dangerous reporting assignments. He was 43.
There are no words that can reconcile his loss to his family or to the world of journalism. He was a brilliant comet of light and energy that blew through our respective skies with decisive impact. I believe Anthony’s work renews hope for the embattled craft of journalism and how we think about the Middle East. It starts with celebrating people as human beings and sharing our stories and ignoring our borders.
My stalwart college friends from The Daily Cardinal at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have mourned his loss since we got the bad news. We all knew Anthony when his dream of becoming the world’s best foreign correspondent was a goal. We’ve been trading our favorite stories about him and reflecting on what his loss means to the world. When you lose a friend who offered and accomplished so much, you can’t help but examine your own accomplishments against the deadline of death. But in life, I believe Anthony beat that deadline with his work and big heart. He accomplished great things and inspired so many people in such a short amount of time. I want to celebrate Anthony’s story with my own children. Owning your dream is achievable. Making a difference in the world is possible. Caring about people is critical. Compassion and understanding will inspire you. Loving what you do will get you where you want to go.
We all knew Anthony was destined for greatness when he was a college student. His journalism always came first. He scheduled girlfriends on his day planner in between learning Arabic, working at the Cardinal and correcting our errors.
Cardinal editors were elected by the staff. In order to win the helm, you had to win the approval of snarky upstarts who cut class to cover stories and competed for coveted bylines above the fold. But Anthony’s name was already branded on the campus editor job before he ran. His work as a campus reporter dominated the front page with the encouragement of Mark Pitsch, who is technically Anthony’s first editor.
Once elected, the pressure to be a great editor at the college newspaper was surviving the Cardinal’s Friday staff meetings. These meetings were reserved for reviewing the week’s worth of papers and calling out the good and the bad in story choices, writing, editing, headline writing, copy editing and story placement. The process could be likened to the decorum of the House of Commons, except the Cardinal allowed drinking, swearing and smoking. Applause was reserved for flawlessness. Jeering was reserved for everything else, especially the editorials.
I can honestly say, as a former Cardinal city editor, I cannot remember a moment in which Anthony was ever a victim of that process because his work was always stellar even then.
Even when Anthony pitched campus-desk stories as worthy of above-the-fold treatment, he was always gracious about it. He was generous with his knowledge and time back then. I believe his work at the Cardinal cemented that generosity for the journalists he groomed and helped along the way. I do hope that the University of Wisconsin-Madison recognizes how significant the Cardinal was to Anthony’s beginning and future journalists inspired by his work.
It was within this framework that Anthony began to build his dream.
I wish I could tell Anthony this story now. I love telling stories about my own mistakes because it brings levity to learning along the way. As a student reporter, I was dispatched to cover a protest march to the Madison Capitol (almost a weekly event). I was told the march would start near the Falafel stand. At the time, I honestly didn’t know that Falafel was a Middle Eastern dish, not a student group. I kept my ignorance to myself when I discovered my error. This confession would have made Anthony howl with laughter.
In this age of social media and blogging, where we search for trusted brands of truth, there is still no better source for news than journalists like Anthony. He put his life on the line to bring us stories you can’t develop sitting on the couch with an iPad. Anthony was a studied veteran, fluent in Arabic, who built his life on truly understanding the culture, history and politics of the Middle East. Anthony translated what mattered in the Middle East to the Western world in a manner accessible to everyday people.
His distinctive storytelling demystified the Arab world. In one way, Anthony was America’s best ambassador to the Middle East.
In one of Anthony’s last reports on Libya for The Times, he reported on the chaos in the wake of the country’s revolution from the perspective of everyday people.
“How can you change people overnight?” interrupted her friend, Naima Mohammed, who is also studying pharmacy. “It’s been 42 years of ignorance.”
Anthony’s life’s work was dedicated to abolishing the ignorance about the Middle East across the globe. He translated wars and revolutions with a human face. He spotlighted the brutal suffering and fears that simple humans faced at the hands of dictators and foreign invaders like the United States.
It is deeply disturbing that we have lost his voice at a time when the Middle East and Americans need him most.
There is only one peace in losing him. Anthony died achieving his journalism dream while challenging the world to think differently. His heart will now rest on the Arab sands that consumed it.