“Enemy of the American people,” #DishonestMedia, “garbage journalism,” #FakeNews.
These are some of the insults hurled at journalists in recent months in efforts to discredit the work of news organizations around the country.
Last week marked the start of our colleague Austin Tice’s sixth year of captivity in Syria. We at McClatchy want to tell you about him and other journalists who have risked and sometimes given their lives to bring us stories that would not otherwise be told.
Some have been tortured. Several have been imprisoned. At least three were murdered — simply for doing their jobs — in the past several years alone.
Daniel Pearl, Jean-Paul Kauffmann, Michel Seurat, Jason Rezaian, James Foley, Steven Sotloff and, of course, Austin Tice. Each dedicated themselves to reporting from the most dangerous parts of the world. At a time when the media is regularly scorned, it’s worth remembering their sacrifices.
Kauffmann, a French journalist, was abducted along with a colleague, Michel Seurat, while covering the long-running Lebanese Civil War in Beirut in 1985. Kauffmann was held for 1,078 days; Seurat died in captivity.
Danny Pearl, a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, went to Pakistan shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. He was investigating the alleged link between al-Qaida and British citizen Richard Reid, commonly referred to as the failed shoe bomber.
On Jan. 23, 2002, on his way to what he thought was an interview, Danny — a former Journal colleague of mine — was kidnapped. Nine days later, he was beheaded. A gruesome video was released on the internet in February of that year. He left a wife and a child born four months after his death.
Jason Rezaian, an Iranian-American journalist who worked in the Tehran bureau of The Washington Post, was taken into custody by Iranian security forces on July 22, 2014. He was indicted on a charge of espionage and propaganda, convicted in a sham of a trial in 2015, but then released on Jan. 16, 2016.
James Foley, a freelance reporter and videographer who worked for GlobalPost and other news organizations, was abducted on Nov. 22, 2012, in northwestern Syria. Two years later, the Islamic State videotaped his beheading and posted it on YouTube.
Steven Sotloff, an American-Israeli journalist who worked for Time magazine, CNN, Fox News and others, was captured near the Syria border on Aug. 14, 2013. On Sept. 2, 2014, two weeks after Foley’s execution, the Islamic State released a video showing the murder of Sotloff.
And then there is Austin, 36, whose ordeal continues to this day. A Marine Corps veteran and a freelance correspondent for McClatchy, The Washington Post and others, Austin traveled to the Mideast, found media organizations to publish his work and made his way across the border into Syria. He focused largely on what the war meant for everyday citizens there.
His reporting led to his kidnapping on Aug. 14, 2012. Video emerged five weeks after his disappearance, showing him surrounded by armed men. No one has claimed responsibility for his capture. Indications are he’s being held by a branch of the Syrian government, which has denied any involvement.
The impact on his life, and that of his family (including his devoted parents Debra and Marc and his six younger brothers and sisters) has been heart-wrenching. His parents, who say they recently received new evidence that he’s alive, have spent every day of these five years working for his release.
These journalists come from different walks of life, but they have one thing in common. They believe in a free press and the power of journalism. Their dedication took them to parts of the world where freedoms we enjoy do not exist, where governments and terrorist organizations will do anything to subvert the truth.
In this country, freedom of expression has been a tenet since the beginning. The benefits of a strong, independent press were addressed in the founding documents of our land. More than two centuries ago, our Founding Fathers recognized that a successful republican democracy cannot succeed without a strong press to hold “governmental officials to republican values, the strengthening of community and a check upon self-aggrandizing politicians.”
And journalism’s contributions are not a recent phenomenon, either. Consider Lee Miller, Robert Capa, George Stevens, John Hershey, Michael Herr and Tim Hetherington, to name just a few. They are the people who captured the images seared in our global memory of Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps, Hiroshima, Omaha Beach, Hue and Afghanistan.
That is why it is disheartening to see the press under attack from some of our leaders who are waging an ongoing campaign against the media, going so far as to call us the enemy of the people.
We at McClatchy believe that when we make mistakes, it is part of our job to acknowledge errors and to uphold the trust of our audiences and neighbors. We are mindful of that trust and try to earn and keep it every day.
But Austin? He made no such mistakes. His sole focus was to pursue truth on behalf of us all — in one of the most dangerous war zones on Earth. And that has cost him his freedom for the start of a sixth year.
This week, at the Sacramento headquarters of the McClatchy Co., we’ll unveil a banner to mark the anniversary of Austin’s captivity and to remind our communities of his story.
We can all be encouraged by the strong stance the Trump administration has taken to protect Americans abroad. The president’s acting special envoy for hostage affairs said last week that Austin’s case is a top priority. According to The New York Times, the Central Intelligence Agency has made entreaties with Syrian counterparts on Austin’s behalf. Let us hope this might be the beginning of negotiations for his release.
And we hope that Austin’s sacrifices resonate with all Americans. The work he has done, and the price he has paid, should be a reminder that even in a time of division and conflict, and perhaps particularly now, we rely on dedicated reporters such as Austin Tice to keep us informed.
Austin went to Syria to tell stories of real people in impossible situations. He has taught us all what it means to risk your life for liberty. It is time for his country to do what it takes to end his long ordeal and bring him home.
Craig Forman is president and chief executive of the McClatchy Co. He is a former foreign correspondent and bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, and wrote this for Tribune News Service.