Voice of the People  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2004

Voice of the People   

Washington Post correspondent Anthony Shadid has focused on how the war in Iraq and its bitter aftermath have affected the lives of the people who live there. His vivid reporting under dangerous conditions won him a Pulitzer. But his approach is not without critics.

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

Related reading:
   » A Boy Who Was "Like a Flower"
   » For an Iraqi Family, "No Other Choice"

The rising star on the Washington Post's foreign staff had a final duty to perform before heading back to one of the most dangerous spots on Earth.

On a balmy March morning, Anthony Shadid bundled his 2-year-old daughter, Laila, into the car and drove her to the babysitter's, a normal routine for parents in his Silver Spring, Maryland, neighborhood in the Washington suburbs.

When the toddler returned home, the suitcase in the foyer would be gone and so would her father, a soft-spoken, bearded reporter assigned to Iraq, which he describes as "the most important foreign story in the world right now."

Shadid already knew he was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, but as the minutes slipped away for a 2 p.m. departure to Dulles International Airport, it was Laila who was uppermost in his mind. He'd missed half his daughter's life during his yearlong tour in Iraq.

"The worst part of this job is what you put other people through," said Shadid as he sipped a cup of black coffee and fielded last-minute telephone calls. Two years earlier, when he'd been shot by a sniper in the West Bank while on assignment for the Boston Globe (see "Bullying the Press," May 2002), his wife flew to the Middle East to be with him. Now, they are separated. "The travel and distance has taken its toll," the reporter says.

Shadid once again was making the shift from the cozy two-story house, tucked away at the end of a cul-de-sac, to a place where insurgents kidnap foreigners and dismember the bodies of their enemies. Despite the sacrifices, Iraq was exactly where the Arabic-speaking journalist wanted to be. "For now, it seems like the right thing to be doing," he said before he departed that afternoon.

On April 5, around 11 p.m. Iraq time, Shadid had just filed a story on the Shiite uprising and was on the phone to the newsroom nervously waiting as the Pulitzer winners came over the Associated Press wire. Suddenly, he was switched to a speakerphone as Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. was making the announcement to a room full of cheering colleagues. The grandson of Lebanese immigrants had won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting for his coverage of the Iraq war and its tumultuous aftermath.

Post correspondent Karl Vick managed to find a couple of bottles of champagne in a nearby marketplace that night. They shared a box of Wheatables and listened to a "Tribute to Merle Haggard" CD. "That was about as raucous at it got," Shadid, 35, said of the muted celebration at the heavily fortified Sheraton Hotel in downtown Baghdad.

The Pulitzer Board cited Shadid's "extraordinary ability to capture, at personal peril, the voices and emotions of Iraqis as their country was invaded, their leader toppled and their way of life upended." Earlier, when he'd won the American Society of Newspaper Editors' award for deadline news reporting by an individual, judges lauded his "enormous descriptive range and great lyrical power. He did it all from the base of great reporting strength," they said of his work.

In late April, Shadid won the first Michael Kelly Award, a $25,000 prize in memory of the former Atlantic Monthly editor who was killed in Iraq last year.

Shadid's "voice of the people" trademark resonates with supporters. They view his interviews with Iraqis in remote villages, marketplaces and Baghdad slums as filling a gap in American coverage. For a two-part series that ran in mid-March, Shadid probed the psyche of a former Sunni diplomat and delved into the world of a mother of eight who sent a beloved son off to fight a superpower. It is through their eyes that readers see how U.S. policies are playing out.

Boston Globe Editor Martin Baron, who bemoans losing Shadid to the Post late in 2002, attributes the reporter's "extraordinary ability" to connect to people on the street to his knowledge of the Arabic language and culture.

"He has as well-developed and sophisticated understanding of the Arab world as any reporter I know," says Baron, who, two years ago, flew to Israel to be with Shadid when he was wounded in the West Bank.

Gideon Rose, managing editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, feels Shadid's reporting adds an important dimension to America's understanding of the situation in Iraq.

Most journalists, says Rose, can cover a briefing by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III or other coalition officials, but very few can tap into the hearts and minds of Iraqi villagers after their homes have been searched by American soldiers or after they have participated in a protest. "Shadid is one of the few," Rose says. "I think he's doing wonderful reporting."

For many Post readers, Shadid's stories have become the definitive voice of Iraqis during the war and the ensuing occupation. Yet not everyone finds the correspondent's highly humanized reporting style praiseworthy. Opinions on the quality and impact of Shadid's work are polarized.

Detractors point to what they consider an overly pessimistic portrayal of events, especially in regard to democracy-building efforts and progress of the CPA--Coalition Provisional Authority--charged with reconstruction.

John Leo, of U.S. News & World Report, has been one of the harshest critics. "I have a bone to pick with Shadid," he wrote in a column for Universal Press Syndicate in April 2003. Leo accused the correspondent of being "woefully addicted" to emotionally loaded "They've killed my baby!" journalism. A year later, his views haven't changed.

Highly evocative reporting, says Leo, "can pull the heartstrings, but I don't want my heartstrings pulled. I want to know how the war is being conducted. Was the military heedless on safety precautions? Were they heaving these gigantic bombs at random in [Baghdad] residential areas, or was it one bomb going astray?"

He points to a March 31 front-page story by Shadid headlined "A Boy Who Was 'Like a Flower,' " describing in detail the killing of a Baghdad teen hit by shrapnel in his neighborhood. Leo cites the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times correspondent John F. Burns as an exemplar of more thorough and dispassionate reporting.

Middle East expert Jonathan Schanzer also does not share the upbeat appraisal of Shadid's work. Instead, he likens his reporting to "NPR fluff pieces," tearjerkers that provide a slice of life but little real context or understanding of the conflict.

"Just having one quote after another, which some of [Shadid's] pieces really are, adds to the picture, but you're not reporting anything groundbreaking," said Schanzer, who studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Two years ago, Schanzer, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote a scathing review of Shadid's book, "Legacy of the Prophet," based on the correspondent's Middle East experience while covering the region for the Associated Press.

Schanzer lumped Shadid with "a new generation of apologists" for militant Islam and suggested that he had a personal agenda. "Shadid's book often toes the party line of autocratic Middle East regimes," he wrote.

Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, founded in 1990 to promote American interests in the region, took criticism of the book even further. Shadid, he wrote in a review, "has not a clue about Islam." To Pipes, Islamism is "a utopian ideology that seeks to use governments and other institutions to establish a totalitarian domination over the lives of individuals." He concludes that "Shadid and his fellow 'of the prophet' journalists do a grave disservice in closing their eyes to these plain facts."

Pipes has a different view of Shadid's front-line reporting in Iraq: "I find his daily coverage to be much better than his book. He is a good writer and observer; he just doesn't know the subject of Islam."

In one passage of his book, Shadid acknowledged that despite his Arab roots and ability to speak Arabic, "Islam has nevertheless remained sometimes foreign and all too often confusing and troubling--the attacks of Sept. 11 being just one example."

He shrugs off the notion that he is an apologist for Islam. "To be honest, I'm not even sure what the word means. I try to be as rigorous as possible in my reporting and in trying to understand and take in the diversity" in these complex regions, he says. He recalls reading the remarks about him in Leo's column. But, he says, "I hate to even address what he says. Everybody has an opinion."

Washington Post editors were on a hunt for a journalist fluent in Arabic when Shadid caught their eye. "It was clear that this was one of the great gaps in American journalism--the ability to speak at an intimate level with and really communicate with Arabic-speaking people," says Philip Bennett, the Post's assistant managing editor for foreign news.

He says that during the first days of the bombing, Shadid was able to travel around Baghdad without attracting attention in a way other American journalists could not. "Anthony not only gave us Iraqi voices, he brought us inside people's lives with a degree of insight and patience and intelligence that was really remarkable from the first of those stories," the editor says.

Bennett mentions that Shadid's byline appeared on 24 front-page stories over a three-week period during the war. The pieces were on a broad array of subjects. "I don't think that anybody could successfully accuse Anthony of having an agenda," Bennett says.

Washington Post Ombudsman Michael Getler recalls receiving "a couple" of comments from readers who felt that Shadid's stories dwelled too much on the negative. "But more people wrote to praise and call attention in a positive way to his reporting than to complain about it not being fair," Getler says.

As bombs began laying waste to Saddam Hussein's strongholds, Shadid began exploring what was bringing Iraqi society together and what was tearing it apart during this time of crisis, and what political, religious and social forces were at work. His role in the Post's overall coverage plan was to help readers understand the war and its consequences through the eyes of ordinary people who were directly affected.

The assignment was perfectly suited to a second-generation Arab American who knew he wanted to be a journalist and cover the Middle East by the time he was 17.

Shadid served as editor of his high school newspaper in his hometown of Oklahoma City. But his first brush with journalism at the University of Oklahoma during his freshman year was not too promising.

"I took a job at a radio station and had to get up at 4 a.m. to help rewrite the wires for a news bulletin. In the first week, I overslept three times and was basically fired," he says. He signed on at the campus newspaper the following week and had a "great time." The next year, he transferred to the University of Wisconsin, where he earned a degree in journalism and political science in 1990.

Fresh out of college, Shadid did a brief stint with the AP in Milwaukee. A year later, he accepted a fellowship to study Arabic at the American University in Cairo. "There wasn't a lot of decision-making," he says. "I knew where I wanted to be, and I knew language was critical to that."

By 1993, he was back with the AP in New York City. After two years, he was transferred to Cairo, where he covered assignments in a dozen Middle East countries. In 1997, Shadid won an Overseas Press Club citation for a series of articles that later became the core of his book.

Asked about his journalism heroes, Shadid answers in a heartbeat. He has been most inspired by Ryszard Kapuscinski, a Polish reporter who gained recognition in the '60s and '70s for his coverage of civil wars, revolutions and social conditions in the Third World. Kapuscinski also wrote a book, titled "Shah of Shahs," about the Iranian revolution.

Shadid pulled a weathered copy off a bookshelf and thumbed to his favorite passages. "It is remarkable, one of the classics," he says. "I have been inspired by him since college." A World Press Review article once referred to Kapuscinski as a "poet among journalists."

When the reporter moved to the Boston Globe in 2000, he began as a business writer in the Washington bureau, a total turnaround for him. Two years later, he headed to Israel. He won the George Polk Award for foreign reporting that year for a series on the Middle East.

Shadid's home is a tapestry of the Arab world. There are stunning hand-woven wall hangings from Iran and Afghanistan. The ornate couch was shipped from Cairo when the reporter returned from a tour with the AP. A mantel holds carved silver boxes decorated with camel bone from Yemen; there are oriental rugs and pillows decorated with mirrors. Two puppets from Jordan peek out from his daughter's toy box.

There's also a bit of Americana: a Green Bay Packers' cap sits on a shelf in his office. "I am crazy about them," Shadid says. A basketball hoop stands at the end of the driveway.

Before he returned to Iraq in March, Shadid delivered a speech, sponsored by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, on the formidable challenges foreign correspondents face and the growing danger in Iraq as insurgents draw fewer and fewer lines between the media and the military.

"A journalist is a foreigner, and a foreigner is a target. Those working with foreigners are targets. It is that simple," Shadid told the audience. Shadid described a press corps under siege, hiring armed bodyguards and providing weapons to drivers. Hotels where journalists work are behind two-story concrete barricades, their entrances manned by checkpoints with U.S. soldiers or security guards.

"The scenario in which we require the blessing of the dominant military, where we fortify ourselves against the country we're supposed to cover, where we travel in the same fashion as armed combatants--that could soon describe reporting in Iraq," Shadid said.

But despite the danger, he will not carry a weapon or travel with an armed driver. "For me, that is the red line," he says. "I feel very strongly about that. We already have lost so much of our image as noncombatants, and anything that further erodes that image is dangerous." (See Free Press, April/May.)

Since that interview, the ferocity of the fighting and attacks against foreigners have further eroded the media's mobility. "We're hesitating to leave Baghdad and thinking twice about going to some neighborhoods in the city," Shadid wrote in an e-mail. "There definitely is a bunker mentality right now, and I suspect it might grow even more acute."

When the war started, Shadid insisted to editors that he remain in Baghdad. "We have a responsibility to have as many eyes and ears on the ground--that we have not only embedded reporters, which I thought was great, but also the other end of it. It would be a real disservice if we didn't have both," says Shadid, who was one of the few American reporters to witness the bombing from the heart of the city.

Part of the challenge, the correspondent says, was to find the "human moment." He adds, "You can cover a story from above or from below. You can cover high politics or more of the street sentiment, which I find often is ignored. To me, that is very compelling and important, one of the most effective ways to tell this story."

In February, violence struck the Post's Baghdad team. The home of Nasir, an Iraqi who had worked as Shadid's assistant and become a dear friend, was bombed by unknown assailants. They left a message warning against cooperating with Americans. No one was injured, but the family went into hiding. That same day, Washington Post staffers spotted men in a car taking pictures of their residence in Baghdad. Fearing an attack, the bureau relocated to the more heavily fortified Sheraton Hotel.

As the violence escalated, Shadid knew that finding sources like Salem, a father who turned his AK-47 assault rifle on a son accused of being a U.S. informant, could only happen if he continued to venture onto the back roads and into the rural areas of Iraq. Of all the horrors he has witnessed, the one he recounted in a page-one story on August 1, 2003, disturbs him most deeply.

"I remember the one quote when the father said, 'Even the prophet Abraham did not have to kill his son.' When I was writing that down, my hand was shaking," recalls Shadid, who explained that, under tribal law, family members would have been executed if the father refused to take action. "I never expected to get to the father."

The key to obtaining such interviews is finding an entry point into a village and quickly building trust. Sometimes he goes to a barbershop, because barbers are likely to know everybody in the village. He might go to a mosque, a pharmacy or a market to begin establishing rapport.

In the village of Thuluya, where the shooting of the son had taken place, a pharmacist paved the way. "If it wasn't for him, there was no way we would have found the father," Shadid says.

During their time together that day, the pharmacist kept quoting the Koran and asking Shadid, raised a Christian, when he was going to convert. "That comes up all the time," Shadid says. Nevertheless, he says, "I have found Iraqis to be pretty respectful" about his faith. "A Lebanese Christian has a familiar ring to them. It's not as if I was a Christian from Texas."

Even before he won the Pulitzer, Shadid was much sought after as a guest on NPR, CNN, NBC and other major media outlets. He tends to offer a somber assessment of America's role in Iraq, describing the Iraqi people's frustration, ambivalence and fear.

On March 10, he told Terry Smith of PBS' "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" that "there isn't a lot of talk about politics, really, about the Governing Council, about elections. There is a lot of talk about electricity, though, about water."

During a speech in October 2003 at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Shadid called religion the most powerful and unpredictable issue in postwar Iraq. He warns the mainstream press may be missing the story of the rise of religious fundamentalism because it is taking place primarily in the rural regions, where reporters are afraid to go. "Young people are waking up, not for anything, just for God. They prefer martyrdom to marriage," he told an audience last fall.

He worries that democracy in Iraq might not develop the way U.S. government officials envision. "I don't think when people talk about democratic reform they are talking about empowering Islamic activists, but that is likely to happen," Shadid says. "There is a certain contradiction in the way America talks about reform and the way reform might actually play out."

He sees elections, tentatively planned for January 2005, as the major turning point, not the turnover of sovereignty scheduled for June 30. "The clergy are playing a huge role in Iraq right now, and we will see that more so in the elections next year," he says.

This summer, little Laila will have her father around to play with her in a backyard shrouded by towering trees. Shadid returned home on April 19 to begin a six-month leave of absence to write a book about Baghdad, a city he calls "the most resilient place I have ever been in my life."

"Baghdad defies logic to me," he says. "It was amazing during the war. At night, there was a ferocious amount of bombing. The next morning, there's traffic in the street and people are opening their little shops. I am fascinated with the city."

And after the book is finished? "My ambition eventually is to cover the broader region of the Middle East. That was what I was hired for originally," says Shadid, who has not wavered from goals he set as a teenager, writing for a school newspaper, back in Oklahoma City.


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