It was sometime in Baghdad in 2003 when Dexter Filkins, then a New York Times war correspondent, knew the competition in The Washington Post’s Anthony Shadid was staggeringly good.
“I remember I had been out of the country for a while and I came back and I had these vague notions of what was happening and then I think the first day I was back I read his story, which even today it was just an amazing piece,” said Filkins, now a correspondent for The New Yorker. “It was a story about how a father — and Anthony interviewed the guy — an Iraqi father had killed his son at the insistence of his neighbors, basically, because the son had started working for the Americans. And it was an amazing story and it was just, I just remember thinking at the time like, whoa. That’s how far ahead he was of everyone, when everyone else was sitting there scratching their heads asking these basic questions, Anthony was already 40 miles down the road finding a story that would illustrate it. So, I just remember that really vividly because the story was so good but it was also just a measure of just how much better he was than everybody else.”
“I wanted to get back on the plane and leave,” said Filkins. “I didn’t even know where the village was.”
Shadid died on Thursday after he suffered an asthma attack while on assignment in Syria. Time’s Bobby Ghosh called him “the best of the breed.” The Washington Post’s former managing editor Phil Bennett called his work in March 2003 the “best run of journalism I’ve seen in 30 years.”
Those were confusing times in 2003. The story was moving incredibly quickly. And it was hard to keep up.
“I mean the story was enormous in the sense that, not just in its import and magnitude, but it was so mystifying and overwhelming because there were so many things that were happening all at once,” Filkins continued. “Everybody was just working all the time, and totally exhausted. Everybody, including him. And everybody was overwhelmed. He just figured out the arc of the thing before anybody else did.”
Filkins — himself one of the finest war correspondents of his generation — called Shadid’s performance throughout 2003 “one of the great runs ever.” Shadid would later win a Pulitzer for his work that year, the first of two he would win.
“I think what made Anthony’s reporting so exceptional was that he kind of figured the story out from the bottom, where most people were looking at the top,” Filkins continued. “Most people were looking at what the military, what the American military was trying to do, what the Americans were trying to do, and what’s happening with the occupation and all that. And Anthony was down talking with the Iraqis, which is not to say that nobody else was, but Anthony just got it so well. And I think he figured out very quickly just what the Iraqi people were thinking and feeling. And so I think he had a much better sense that this thing, this gigantic enterprise was coming apart. I mean I think he understood that through the Iraqis better than anybody.”
“I can’t count the number of times he got stuff that I wish we had — that we all wish we had,” said NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel. “He was always one step ahead of us. We were always chasing him — we weren’t quite chasing him, he was one step ahead of us. He was in one tiny village, talking to these people and coming out with these subtle, textured stories.”
For five years, the Times tried to hire him — three times. It wasn’t until 2009 — in the midst of a hiring freeze, and a year in which Times would cut 100 jobs—that they would able to land him.
“We all have informal milestones in our work lives — stories we wrote, or missed, characters we interviewed, colleagues we shared an adventure with. One of my milestones was hiring Anthony Shadid in 2009 — on at least the third try,” e-mailed former Times executive editor, Bill Keller. “It was a bittersweet hire — sweet for all the obvious reasons, but bitter because of his sadness at leaving The Post, which had treated him so well and nominated him successfully for two Pulitzers. Anthony was worried that the contractions in our business were so severe that even the Post, even the great Washington Post, was no longer a safe home for his kind of deep, culturally astute foreign reporting. The pool of people invested in doing this work and doing it right was shrinking. And now, suddenly, it has shrunk again.”
Usually, after a great journalist dies there’s lots of talk about what a nice guy someone is. But he was particularly nice. It’s apparently not easy to find nice war correspondents.
“I always thought he was just remarkably well-rounded given the intensity of the work he produced, unlike, I’ll be honest, unlike so many of the colleagues that you come across when you’re a foreign correspondent,” said Tina Susman, the former Baghdad bureau chief of the L.A. Times. “I mean everybody’s got their own talents. And so many people have won terrific awards and stuff and so many of them make a point of slipping that into the conversation in the first five minutes. That wasn’t the way Anthony was.”
“Like, last night after I heard that he had been killed, or that he had died, I started going through my e-mails and looking for email exchanges I had with him over the years,” Susman continued. “And like, the very, one of the last ones I had from him. I got very sick when I was in Iraq. And when I left I had to have surgery. It was very serious. I actually suffered a stroke in Iraq and when I came back to the United States a year later I had surgery to fix basically what was double vision, which I had lived with for a year. And Anthony was one of the few people that knew about that, and he was also one of the few people who when, after I’d been out of Iraq for a couple of months, he sent me an e-mail, ‘You probably had your surgery by now, just wanted to know how it was, and if you’re doing OK. I’m hoping you’re not seeing triple vision,’ something like that. And then he said, you know, ‘Baghdad just isn’t the same without you.’ It was really, it was a very sweet message to get from somebody who quite frankly didn’t need to send it, who obviously had a lot of other stuff on his plate at that point. But it really just showed that, even amid winning Pulitzers and covering huge stories, he thought about other people, he thought about the people he wrote about and he thought about the colleagues he had worked with over the years.”
“He really filled a room, and not just because he was a good journalist, but cause he was just a good person and a nice guy and that’s hard to come by in this profession of prima donnas,” she said.
She wasn’t alone.
“Most foreign correspondents, particularly those who have been in a war zone are very hard people — even if they’re pretty sensitive in their work, which the better ones are,” said Filkins. “You can become very hard in this kind of work because you have to be, because you see people die and you have to kind of bully your way through lots of awful situations, whether it’s a roadblock or some guy that wants to arrest you. And Anthony just managed, I don’t know, he just managed not to become that. It just seemed you know doubly or triply unfair that he would die in such a way.”
“The other thing about Anthony is that he was a sweetheart — generous, genial, approachable, a listener,” said Keller. “Michael Slackman (now a deputy foreign editor, long a reporter in the Middle East) says Anthony was the kind of guy who would translate for his less fluent competitors. I think that quality — call it empathy — explains how he got under the skin of complicated societies.”
But what was it that separated him? Filkins said Shadid would wear these “short-sleeved checkered shirts,” which made him blend in with Iraqis. Was that it? Was it because he knew Arabic?
“It’s not the just the language,” said Engel. “It’s the people emotions. It’s understanding the region profoundly.”
“If you don’t know the language is makes it harder, but it doesn’t mean you can’t do that. I mean with Anthony, it would have been really, really exceptional whether he spoke it or not is what I mean,” said Filkins. “But he was in the police department, it was an Iraqi police station and you know the city is on fire everywhere, it’s total chaos. And Americans are trying to set up these police stations. And he’s in the police station and the American lieutenant or whatever is standing there with these Iraqis and you know they’re trying, the American is kind of lecturing the Iraqi guy on how to be a policeman. And then the Iraqi guy is dutifully nodding. And then he went and talked to both of them afterwards and it was just hilarious. It was like, the American guy was like, ‘I hate these people, God, I hate them.’ And then he’d do the Iraqi guy, and the Iraqi was like, ‘God, I hate them.’ And it was just devastating, you know it was devastating. I mean, how many stories like that do you need to read? It kind of exploded the paradigm.”
“This has been a tumultuous era,” Filkins continued, “an era of war and terrorism and foreign occupation and kind of the American encounter with the Islamic world and Anthony covered that better than anyone.”