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Anthony Shadid: ‘I Don't Call Myself a War Correspondent’
The New York Times' Anthony Shadid talks to On Point in April 2011. (Nicholas Dynan for WBUR)

The New York Times' Anthony Shadid talks to On Point in April 2011. (Nicholas Dynan for WBUR)

Veteran Middle East correspondent Anthony Shadid, who died while on assignment this week in Syria, appeared on On Point more than a dozen times over the past few years, offering his insights on a region of the world engulfed in violent upheaval — from the War in Iraq to the Arab Spring.

“I don’t call myself a war correspondent,” he told On Point last year. “I don’t enjoy covering war. I do want to cover the Middle East and I do find it very necessary and important to cover the Arab world. And when conflict becomes part of that story, then I feel obligated to cover it. ”

He is survived by his two children and his wife Nada Bakri, a veteran correspondent herself, who joined us in November to talk about the crisis in Syria.

But it was violent conflicts that have dominated the region and his reporting. Shadid last joined On Point days before Christmas, to review the progress of the Arab Spring.  He joined us earlier in the year to talk about the uprisings in Syria and Egypt. He stopped by the studio for a compelling conversation, where he talked about his captivity in Libya. He called the ragtag rebels, who eventually ousted the Qaddafi regime, “amateurish.”

Shadid was one of the country’s top chroniclers of the war in Iraq and he joined the show frequently to discuss the latest news and his insights. In 2005, he discussed the huge stakes in that country’s first elections and the Iraqi response to the vote. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his Iraq reporting in 2004. He joined us in 2005 to talk about his book on Iraq, Night Draws Near: Iraq’s people in the Shadow of America’s War. When the country descended into chaos the next year, he joined us to talk about the Iraqi civil war.

In 2009, Shadid talked about the U.S. pull-out from Iraqi cities as part of the drawdown of American forces. In 2010, he updated us on the most recent elections he also joined us for an hour looking at the impacts of the drawdown on Iraq. He also talked with us after the drawdown was complete. He won the Pulitzer Prize again in 2010 for his coverage of the drawdown.

It was the breadth and depth of his knowledge about the region which made him such an important voice — ranging from an analysis of the Israeli war with Lebanon, to the prospects of Islamic democracy, to Obama’s speech to the Muslim world.

Few journalists shared Shadid’s gift for distilling the complexities of the Middle East down to their essential truths in a way that listeners can easily grasp. His wisdom, wit, and voice on our air will all be deeply missed.

Here is one memorable exchange from a show last year, with Shadid in the studio talking about his captivity in Libya.

Caller Joe from Newburyport, Mass. Hi, Tom and hi to your guests. First of all, congratulations for surviving such an ordeal. I can’t help but wonder, partly in awe, partly respect, partly in just the – why would someone put themselves, and the last caller kind of asked it, but why would someone put themselves in such a situation, yourself and your colleagues, number one? Also, the woman got abused in Egypt back about two months ago, and why do they go in without security forces, if all these Haliburtons and everyone can hire security forces, why do you not go in with security forces? And if you have families, spouses, whatever, don’t you think its kind of, I kind of wonder if its irresponsible of you, or should I have respect for you, is there a social redeeming value for you going in? Putting your lives at risk? Also, our ambassador, everyone to have to come in and rescue you – does it cost our taxpayers money? So I’m kind of wondering what the logic in your mind or heart is to want to continue to want to do this and why you continually put yourself in harm’s way? And why you don’t have security forces to protect while you’re doing it?

Tom Ashbrook: Joe, I’ll put that question to Tony, but let me ask you first – I mean, you’re watching this with all the rest of us, we would know much less if there were not reporters there. Big decisions are being made about the extent of American and other involvement in this country. Let me turn it around to you for just a second before we go to Tony. Don’t you want reporters on the ground telling you what’s going on Joe?

Joe: That’s why I say I’m a little bit torn. I partly think its irresponsible of them, personally I wouldn’t want to put myself in that situation and I’d say well partly kind of respect and awe that they will do that, but I just kind of, why would they risk them, risk themselves without security backing and why do their organizations not, if they don’t, have security backing with them?  Like I said, I’m kind of torn.

Ashbrook: Tony. We hear it Joe. Thanks.

Anthony Shadid: I think it’s a perfectly legitimate question. …In its essence, are we being irresponsible? And I don’t know the answer to that, to be honest. You know, I’ve made some tough calls in the past, you know. In 2003, I decided to stay in Baghdad unembedded during the American invasion. I took risks in 2006 when I covered the war between Israel and Lebanon. There have been other moments, where, you know, I felt that if I wasn’t there, the story wouldn’t be told otherwise. And I think that…you know, I tell that to myself, because I think it’s the most altruistic reading of it. If I’m not there, the story won’t be told. Was that story in Ajdabiya that day we got captured worth the risks we took? It absolutely was not worth the idea of someone being killed. And like I said, we don’t know the fate of our driver. But if he was, if he was killed, then we’re going to have to live with the burden that story was absolutely and utterly not worth it and we took risks that got someone killed. Um. I don’t know. I don’t think there’s an easy answer to this. I don’t call myself a war correspondent. I don’t enjoy covering war. I do want to cover the Middle East and I do find it very necessary and important to cover the Arab world. And when conflict becomes part of that story, then I feel obligated to cover it. But I think that question – were we being irresponsible or not – is not easy to answer.

UPDATE: Columnist and regular On Point guest Trudy Rubin has a great piece on Shadid, including mention of his OP appearance. You can read it here.

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