In this era of distrust and finger-pointing, the media and government are common targets, slammed for being in the pocket of an interest group or just plain lazy and incompetent. In the past week, we have been reminded of the remarkable and valuable contributions made by both.
Anthony Shadid, a New York Times foreign correspondent (and friend), died in Syria last week, the apparent victim of an asthma attack. It was such a shock—not only because the highly talented writer was only 43, but because he had managed to survive so much physical danger (and a kidnapping last year) while reporting in the West Bank, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere. Anthony took huge risks to tell the stories of what was happening in the Middle East—not because he had a Hollywood movie image of himself as a swaggering, tough-talking foreign correspondent. But because he knew the best way to tell the real story was to talk to regular people, to win their trust and learn about their lives. He spoke fluent Arabic—not because the Lebanese-American had learned it growing up in Oklahoma, but because he had done an immersion course in Cairo after college. He cared about people, and was willing to risk his life to tell their stories to the world.
Many people don't understand how vulnerable reporters are in war zones. Often, reporters will have flak vests, but even body armor doesn't provide full protection (as Anthony learned when he was shot in the shoulder in Ramallah in 2002). Flak vests are also very heavy and cumbersome, especially when one is not riding in a tank, but in a sedan, roaming the country with a colleague or two and a local "fixer." Nor are journalists armed, since carrying a gun makes authorities suspect journalists to be combatants. And the danger isn't always from bullets and shrapnel. Healthcare is often poor and hospitals sparse in war zones. My friend and extremely gifted reporter Elizabeth Neuffer survived combat conditions in the Balkans, Africa, and Iraq only to die in a car crash in Iraq while she was returning from interviews. The fact that Anthony and Elizabeth died not from a bullet does not diminish the commitment both made to journalism.
Here at home, federal law enforcement foiled an alleged plot by a man who was reportedly trying to blow up the U.S. Capitol. Undercover FBI agents posed as al Qaeda operatives, leading the man to believe he had been given an automatic and a suicide vest for the mission.
The success is laudable. And while Americans tend to get understandably nervous when an attack almost succeeds (as with the shoe bomber) and question whether law enforcement is doing its job, the truth is that police and federal agents thwart threats every single day. We just don't know about them, because authorities don't tell us. They can do their jobs better by not tipping off potential terrorists to what they know. And that means that the public has no idea how successful the agents and police really are. The FBI has been rightly patted on the back for foiling the most recent alleged plot. But it's hardly an isolated success.
So while it can be cathartic to complain about the media or blast federal workers, both institutions showcased some real heroes in the past week. And both deserve recognition.