When I first met Anthony Shadid he was sitting across the table from me in a Doha conference room in 2003 eagerly jotting down quotes in a tiny notebook. There were about 10 of us in the room– young, enthusiastic journalists from several countries that had been hired as the first staff writers for Al Jazeera International, which would eventually become the television channel Al Jazeera English. Anthony was there to interview us for his piece on Qatar’s media ambitions at the time. I remember being fascinated by his ability to use such a tiny notebook (about the size of a pack of cigarettes) to capture so many voices at once. But being young, idealistic and vocal, I was also terrified by what he was going to use and barely slept that night! Thankfully our comments didn’t make into his story, and fears of being snatched at night by mukhabarat never materialized.
I ran into Anthony several more times over the years, at conferences and news events, even at the gym in Beirut. “Hope all’s well with you,” he wrote me a year ago. “If you’re in Beirut, I’d love to get coffee when I get back.” Having known more than a few egotistic journalists over the years– whose talents don’t compare to his– Anthony was very humble for a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. He encouraged my work on this blog and printed out a draft of my in-depth piece on the Lebanese Jewish community, “a subject that is really dear to my heart,” and promised to read it. I always planned to follow up with him and now regret not having had the chance to do so.
Though our encounters were often brief, what sticks with me the most about Anthony, in addition to his insightful writing and humility, was his perspective on the role of a journalist: “My job is to bear witness,” he told a 2005 conference in Texas, explaining that “conversations… are probably the best thing we can encounter as journalists.” He said listening to and recording the thoughts of average people was often more important than the punditry of leaders and analysts that claim to speak for them.
He further elaborated on this theme at a 2008 AUB conference saying:
“If I’ve learned something after more than 12 years of being a foreign correspondent… (it’s that) the journalism we can be least proud of is the journalism that comes from claiming to know too much, of acting like someone we are not.”
“The articles that I felt held up over time were the ones that gave voice to the people I met there over those weeks (in Baghdad), that describe their sentiments, their fears, their hopes and their ambitions. The ones that felt dated and cliched were the ones where I put forth my own views when I said with too much certainty what was going in a country that wasn’t my own.”
Here is the full lecture:
May Anthony’s words live on, and continue to inspire other journalists as they have inspired me.