About a year and a half ago, I found myself in the living room of a luxury condominium overlooking a beach in Naples, Florida. I’d been reporting in the Middle East, and, for the first time in two years, had returned home to the U.S. for a visit. My family and I were making the holiday rounds, which brought us to this high-rise, the home of my half-brother’s friend’s wealthy relatives. I’d hoped to just enjoy the view. Instead I got cornered by small talk.
Our hostess asked where I lived. In a small town in southern Turkey, I answered. Inevitably, she asked what I did there. “I’m a journalist covering Syria.”
Without hesitation, she bore in: “So, is your reporting truthful?” She inserted the question the way someone might confront a WWE wrestler about whether what happens in the ring is real. We all know it’s made up. Just admit it.
She continued to press, telling me she was certain the media wasn’t giving her the whole story. She wanted to know why. She knew that President Bashar al-Assad was bad, but who exactly were the people in the opposition? (This was the December 2012, when moderates still held sway in the Syrian resistance.)
“I wrote a story on that very issue last week before I came home,” I told her. There was also an article on it in the day’s New York Times, a copy of which sat on her coffee table. I pointed to it: “You’ll see there’s also a lengthy article examining that question in today’s paper.”
James Foley was among those who also wrote about that question. One of the final articles he wrote for GlobalPost, in October 2012, detailed the growing divide between opposition fighters and civilians in Aleppo. Not long after filing that dispatch, he was abducted, beginning more than 600 days in captivity that ended with the Islamic State beheading him and posting a video of it on August 19.
I’ve often wondered about the risks that reporters, myself included, take in order to cover war. In the wake of Jim’s death, these questions weigh on me more heavily than ever.
After spending seven years working in the Middle East and Afghanistan, I returned to the U.S. last October, and this time I've stayed. In the months since, I’ve met countless news consumers like that woman in Florida, trapped in a luxury high-rise, surrounded by information they refuse to access or consider.
Never before have Americans disliked journalists as much as they do now. Political coverage, which tends to be most contentious—and also to most influence perceptions of the press in general, thanks to its prominence—remains relentlessly even-handed, as a meta analysis of decades of presidential campaign reporting by University of Connecticut professor David D'Alessio has shown. Yet readers believe the opposite. In a 2011 Pew Research Center survey, two-thirds of respondents said that news stories are often inaccurate. About a third said the news media is “not professional.” Forty-two percent described the news media as immoral, with only 38 percent judging the profession as moral.
Working overseas, I rarely thought about how people process the news. To be certain, I never imagined people clamoring for foreign reporting. I assumed most people were indifferent but I took comfort in knowing that my profession provided a public record readily available if or when a person decided to devote time to an issue. More than anything, I worked as a journalist because I loved the day-to-day hustle. A possible higher purpose was what convinced me it was worth it when bad things happened, like getting caught up in an air strike or having a roadside bomb explode under the truck just in front of me.
In November 2012, I was reporting on events in Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city. At the time, the conflict was still in its early stages. The Islamic State had not yet officially formed, and for the most part moderate opposition fighters readily cooperated with reporters, helping them to access the frontlines. When news spread that the opposition had captured a strategically important hospital on the edge of the city, I joined three other reporters and an interpreter and hitched a ride in the back of a rebel’s flatbed truck to see for myself.
The scene at the hospital was hardly memorable in the context of the Syrian civil war. The fighting over, all that remained were bullet holes, broken glass, and commandeered medical supplies alongside some theatrics from rebels happy to showcase their progress. The opposition fighters invited us to embed with them as they continued to push for gains and fought up a hill through a nearby village of government loyalists. We declined the invitation to witness what would most certainly be (and I later confirmed was) a brutal, deadly battle.
During our drive back into the city, this time crammed into a small sedan, we were cut off by another car. Masked men fanned out, pointing Kalashnikovs. For a moment, I felt nothing. The scene could have been taken from any action movie abduction I’d ever watched. But then as the immediate shock wore off I remembered something that had happened a couple months earlier, when a group of government loyalists spotted Mika Yamamoto, a Japanese journalist in Aleppo, and gunned her down. I waited for the shots that would end my life.
Instead, one of the gunmen dragged our driver from the car and pushed him into theirs as another gunmen jumped behind the wheel of our car and hit the gas. I thought about jumping out the door, thinking it better to risk rolling out of a speeding car than wait to see what was in store for us at the end of the ride. But with our car cutting through the city at highway speeds and a carload of gunmen following close behind, escape was impossible. I leaned back in the seat, devastated that I’d wasted my life. This wasn’t my country, it wasn’t my war, and now I would die for it in a horrible way. Best case scenario, I would be indefinitely detained.
Thankfully for my colleagues and me, we had a radically different fate than what I’d feared. For reasons I still don’t understand, we were taken to our captors’ base, given lunch, and told not to worry: There’d been a misunderstanding. After several tense hours, they drove us to a roadside espresso stand, bought us drinks, and finally dropped us off in a relatively safe location in downtown Aleppo.
About a month later I was sitting in a plush chair in that Florida high-rise being interrogated about journalistic standards.
Covering wars for a polarized nation has destroyed the civic mission I once found in journalism. Why risk it all to get the facts for people who increasingly seem only to seek out the information they want and brand the stories and facts that don’t conform to their opinions as biased or inaccurate?
And without a higher purpose, what is a career as a reporter? It may count among the so-called “glamor jobs” sought after by recent graduates, but one careers website has listed newspaper reporting as the second worst job in America, based on factors such as stress, pay, and employment uncertainty; toiling as a janitor, dishwasher, or garbage collector all scored better. Even if you love the work, it’s hard not to get worn down by a job that sometimes requires you to risk life and limb for readers who wonder if maybe you suffer all the downsides and hazards just to support some hidden agenda.
I met Jim Foley once or twice working in the Middle East, but knew him mostly by his reputation: A friendly, laidback guy who could make people laugh even in the most dire situations. Now that he’s gone, I wish I could believe that such an extraordinary person died striving to inform an American public yearning to know the truth. It’s harder to accept what really happened, which is that he died while people eagerly formed opinions on his profession and the topics he covered without bothering to read the stories he put in front of them.
Tom A. Peter is a freelance journalist who covered the Middle East and Afghanistan for seven years. He currently writes about border security and immigration as a Robert Novak Journalism fellow.