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A look at Sandy Tolan's criticism of my article on Anthony Shadid

I've belatedly learned that author and USC journalism professor Sandy Tolan posted a complaint about my article "Did the New York Times Lead Anthony Shadid to His Death? Burying the Story along with the Body" at the CNI website, which was also posted on his facebook page.

While I'm glad that Tolan thus alerted people to my piece, I'm disappointed that he did this in an inaccurate and negative way. (I wonder if he has previously alerted people to my other articles and media studies.)

Tolan wrote:

"The night before he left on his fatal trip into Syria, Anthony Shadid told his wife: "‘If anything happens to me, I want the world to know the New York Times killed me.’”

This is reported as fact and yet it is at most a claim by one person that absolutely no one else in the family has come forward to repeat. It's worth having a look at this piece:


In a follow-up comment to a person who had questioned him, Tolan wrote:

My issue was with the Alison Weir article (not the LA Times article) taking the claim of a single person, not backed publicly by anyone else in the family, and stating it as fact.

Tolan's comments are strange and perhaps revealing of bias. The fact is that I did quite clearly attribute Anthony Shadid's quote to his cousin, Dr. Edward Shadid, writing:

At this point, Dr. Shadid said, Anthony called his wife and “gave his last haunting directive: ‘If anything happens to me, I want the world to know the New York Times killed me.’”

He said that after Anthony’s death, the Times put out a story saying that Anthony “died of asthma and that his body was carried out heroically by a journalist.” According to Dr. Shadid, “That never happened.”

He provided details about the immediate circumstances of Anthony’s death that he said were omitted from the Times narrative. [emphasis added]

In my article, contrary to Tolan's comment, I reported that his family had not publicly confirmed these statements (most have refused to comment). I did point out that none has denied Dr. Shadid's statements, which is perhaps the part that displeases Professor Tolan.

Interestingly, Tolan states that there is no problem with the LA Times blog. Yet, the LA Times article does exactly what Tolan considers problematic: reports an individual's statement as fact:

The clearest picture on what happened to Anthony Shadid on his final days comes from Tyler Hicks, the New York Times staff photographer...

This is a considerably categorical statement. The fact is that Hicks' version of events may or may not be true and benefits both Hicks himself and his employer, the New York Times.

According to Dr. Shadid, the New York Times' version is inaccurate in a number of details. At this point it is impossible for the rest of us to know whether Hick's statements are true in their entirety or whether they contain spin, errors, exaggeration, or omission.

Dr. Shadid stated in his speech that the Times' story that Anthony's body had been carried out heroically by a journalist” [Hicks] in actuality "never happened.” (Interestingly, in an earlier interview it appeared that Anthony's wife was also about to correct this, but was interrupted by her interviewer.)

It is disappointing but probably not surprising that Sandy Tolan – who, despite much good writing on Palestine, is very much a journalism insider – seems to tilt toward the New York Times over Dr. Shadid.

The point of my article was that there were highly newsworthy statements about Anthony Shadid's death that the public deserved to learn, and that these had the potential to better protect future journalists from harm. For example, Dr. Shadid felt there was an untreated "epidemic of PTSD” throughout the media industry. 

Another commentator on the article provided corroborating, troubling information:

...Several times, reporters have told me after seeing colleagues in war zones that they shouldn’t be there. I remember specifically that a reporter said to me upon returning from an assignment in the Middle East and encountering a colleague, ”Shame on them, he/she is in no condition to be there and they know it.”

I wrote in the conclusion of my piece:

Saddest of all, is the likelihood that the burying of this story, along with recommendations of how news corporations could better protect their journalists, will lead to future burials of brilliant, courageous young journalists seeking to follow in Anthony’s footsteps – and who follow him in ways they did not expect or deserve.

I felt when I wrote the article, and still strongly feel, that it was wrong for AP and others to refuse to report on Dr. Shadid's statements.

If they had done so, in addition to potentially leading to an improvement in conditions for journalists working in war zones, such coverage would have given readers the opportunity to consider for themselves what they think happened in regard to Anthony Shadid's tragic death.

What do I personally suspect?

I find it highly implausible that Dr. Shadid fabricated the statement that he says Anthony said to his wife. I feel it is telling that despite her clear discomfort with the subject matter and her stated opposition to the controversy, she has not denied the validity of Dr. Shadid's statement.

I also find it highly unlikely that Dr. Shadid fabricated the other statements he made about the circumstances of Anthony's death and the lead up to it. I expect that many of his assertions can be independently confirmed, which is perhaps why the official New York Times response addresses none of his details.

Shadid is an eminent physician and a member of the Oklahoma City Council. His speech was quiet and thoughtful (I was there and heard it in person; others can see it in the video we posted with the article). While Tolan may wish to believe that for some reason Dr. Shadid made up these details, I find that deeply improbable.

Others may disagree. But by burying the story, AP and others withheld from readers the chance to decide for themselves.

Posted on Tuesday, July 17, 2012 at 08:41AM by Registered Commenter[Alison Weir | CommentsPost a Comment | References1 Reference

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