In Austin's words and those of others
In this beautiful essay from The New Quarterly magazine, May Jeong gets to the core of what compels conflict zone journalists who allow us all to be informed about the world's hardest places: Heart-Achingly Young in a Heart Breaking Place
Christy Wilcox (@christywilcoxTV) – May 05, 2013
There is no way to sum up my friend Austin. When I try, I think of passion, tenacity, humor and, oddly enough, Taylor Swift. Austin is a hard-driving conflict correspondent, a former Marine, a student at Georgetown law school. But Taylor’s country pop is his favorite.
As I look at the calendar it’s been eight months and 23 days since I heard from Austin Tice. His last communication with me was the day he disappeared in Syria: August 13, 2012. (True to form, he tweeted this missive just two days earlier: “Spent the day at an FSA pool party with music by @taylorswift13. They even brought me whiskey. Hands down, best birthday ever.”)
It’s uncanny not to hear from him, because Austin always checks in with the friends and family he loves.
Austin is low-key, fixated more on the story than his appearance. I gave him a plain green collared shirt from Macy’s for Christmas in 2011. He smirked and said, “Do people wear shirts with pockets?”
I told him he could return it. He ended up wearing it almost daily for four months while reporting in Syria.
Later, while he was doing television interviews, he asked if I thought he needed to buy another shirt.
“I’m pretty sure people will understand you don’t have time to shop in a war zone,” I said.
We met several years ago at the beach in southern California. I have never met anyone who asked so many questions in the first 15 minutes of conversation. There’s no one more curious, more inquisitive, than Austin.
He’s a born photographer. When we were together the camera was always in my face. Snap, snap, snap … then he’d run off after something else that caught his attention.
I am certain this is what makes him such a good journalist.
Austin was like a kid in a candy store when he first bought his Nikon 4DS. Even with a tight schedule at Georgetown, all he wanted to do was hone his craft as a photojournalist. He practiced relentlessly.
Austin and I were last together in Cairo’s Tahrir Square last March. It was a Friday. We found out there was going to be a protest, so we made our way into a crowd of hundreds of Egyptians who gathered in front of the U.S. Embassy. They chanted against America and numerous NGO workers who were flown out of the country before they were put on trial.
It is seemingly dangerous for an American to cover a protest against America, but Austin didn’t think twice about capturing the entire event. He felt compelled to understand different angles of difficult stories. The same goes for the Syrian revolution. He wanted to capture stories that were rarely covered by the mainstream media.
Almost a year ago, on May 9, Austin sent a Facebook message saying he was off to Turkey. Shortly after that he arrived in Syria, and the two of us began thinking about how he could capture video stories.
He met a little girl who suffered brain damage after being struck during a conflict in Latakia province. He talked to her and befriended her family and neighbors. He even sat down and cried with them. Austin probably wouldn’t share that tale with most people, but that’s my friend – loving and big-hearted.
Later, he arrived in the Syrian village of Yabroud and immediately befriended everyone in the town. That didn’t surprise me either. He loved Syrian food, he loved the culture, and he loved the people. He repeatedly said that it was the best summer of his life. When he went missing at the end of that summer, the people of Yabroud carried posters asking for Austin’s return.
When he wasn’t taking photographs, you could always find him reading or writing. While in captivity, he won the Polk Award (along with his colleagues at McClatchy news service) for his reporting from Syria. I can only envision how excited he will be when he finds out.
One word keeps coming to mind when I think of Austin – persistence. He never let me let go of my dreams, nor would he let anyone else. He would hold me to doing the things I said I was going to do. The day I decided to go to Syria as a freelance video journalist, he shared every piece of information he had with me. He’s competitive, but I always knew he had my back. So when he decided it was time to go to Syria, and eventually make the risky decision to move to the suburbs of Damascus, I felt compelled to support him. Ultimately, I know nobody could have convinced him to not go.
Every now and again I send Austin a Gchat, a text or an email. Someday, when he can, he’ll reply as usual: “Hey, you wanna Skype?”
On that note, I am going to turn on Taylor Swift tonight and sing as loud as I can, just for him. Wherever Austin is, I know he’d enjoy the fact that I made Taylor a priority of this story, of his story.
(Follow the effort to free Tice at Twitter.com/FreeAustinTice.)
The 2012 George Polk Awards were presented at a luncheon at The Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan on Thursday, April 11, 2013. Christiane Amanpour of CNN and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Carl Bernstein will be the citation readers at the event. Receiving the award for Austin Tice, Mark Seibel, Chief of Correspondents for McClatchy Newspapers, shared the following statement from Austin's parents:
"We thank Long Island University and the Panel of Advisers of the Polk Awards for recognizing the fine work of McClatchy Newspapers' Syria reporting team, and for including Austin in that recognition. We especially thank Mark Seibel and Jim Asher, Austin's McClatchy editors, for giving Austin the opportunity to fulfill his passion - to witness and report the experiences of the Syrian people. We hope and pray Austin will soon be safely returned to us, and be able to properly enjoy this honor with his colleagues, family and friends."
Updated: 03/18/13 10:48pm
Would you still do your job if you knew it might kill you?
Journalism is one of those things that will haunt you until you actually do it. I’ve heard so many journalists tell me of how they started off their education and careers in completely different fields only to end up writing.
It is also a somewhat dangerous job. Journalists in America can sometimes end up in jail if they refuse to give up a source. The first time I was detained in Damascus, one of the protesters I was arrested with was a journalism student. As the door to our cell closed, she sat down on the gray cement floor and simply stated, “All good journalists go to jail.”
Journalism can also kill you. According to Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 973 journalists around the world have been killed since 1992. In 2012, Syria was the deadliest country on CPJ’s list, with both citizen and foreign journalists killed for trying to uncover the truth.
Unfortunately, the numbers are probably underestimated. Just recently, two citizen journalists were killed in Damascus by the Syrian regime.
The story of one journalist continues to haunt me, the story of Austin Tice.
Tice, 31, is a Marine Corps veteran and freelance journalist who was on summer break from law school at Georgetown University and was spending his summer to go report in Syria. Entering via the Turkish borders, he was last seen near Damascus in August 2012. He remains missing seven months later.
I came across his story via a random blog post months ago. As I read more I found myself in awe of this man who left everything behind to go find and expose the truth in a country he has no affiliation or duty to. His friend was making a video for him, asking people around the world to hold up posters asking for his freedom, in the hopes it would create media pressure on his captors to release him.
I don’t know what it is about Tice that has me captured in his story. Maybe it’s his last Facebook post that left me in chills. Maybe it’s the huge smile he has in all of his photos. Maybe it’s the fact that he is risking his life for telling the world the story of my people.
Tice knew the risks of his job but that didn’t stop him. His courage and passion inspire me to be a journalist that doesn’t care about what the mainstream media demands or the angle they’re trying to get. Tice was able to do what most major news networks are still failing to do in Syria: reporting the truth.
Tice wasn’t just a freelance journalist, he was free.
Tice is among the McClatchy journalists that have received the 2012 George Polk Award for war reporting for their coverage in Syria. Hopefully he will be free soon to return to his family and enjoy this prestigious award.
Keep Austin in your prayers, and if you can think of any ways to help him, his family has a website set up for him, “The Austin Tice Family.” Tice is one of many journalists facing imprisonment and an uncertain fate for reporting the truth, but in the big picture of voyeurism and sensationalist media, these journalists–or heroes, rather – are an endangered few.
Heeba can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"The George Polk Award for War Reporting recognizes the intrepid coverage of the civil war in Syria by a team of McClatchy Newspapers correspondents. In the series, “Inside Syria,” David Enders
recorded several firsts: he was the first reporter to describe how the
rebels carved out a safe haven in northern Syria; the first to report on
tensions between anti-Assad rebels and Kurdish Syrians; and the first
to write about a rebel battalion, the Farouk Brigade, and a group, Nusra
Front, that the U.S. would label a branch of al Qaida in Iraq. Austin Tice
is a freelancer whose work on McClatchy’s behalf included
groundbreaking reports on the poor tactical performance of the Syrian
military. He was among the first American correspondents to witness
Syrian-rebel confrontations. Tice was last heard from on Aug. 13..."
Our deepest thanks to the Rory Peck Trust for their support of our family, and the families of other journalists missing and in distress. Please visit their website to learn about all the activities of this wonderful organization.
Since the middle of 2012, the abduction of journalists in Syria has increased significantly.
There are 13 Syrian journalists currently reported as detained and/or missing and at least 2 international freelancers - Austin Tice and James Foley.
On Monday 11th March 2013,
Ukrainian freelancer Anhar Kochneva told Russian media that she had
escaped her captors after being held for nearly five months...
SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The McClatchy Company (NYSE: MNI) today announced the winners of 10 President's Awards for journalism excellence in 2012 for exceptional work in investigative reporting, explanatory journalism, photography and writing. The company also recognized two newspapers with special awards for online innovation.
McClatchy Washington Bureau
The bureau's coverage of Syria went up against an assortment of obstacles, from the hazards of reporting on a civil war without clear boundaries to the difficulty of confirming the most basic information. That high degree of difficulty makes this work all the more impressive on a story of vital global interest. The stories delivered by the combination of staff and freelancers chronicled the Syrian story from the front lines, delivering a rich, full portrait of what’s happening inside the country. "An outstanding example of reporting what’s really going on in a place where the truth is so obscure,' the judges said.
Please pray for Austin, who sent this letter to Westbury Civic Club when told of the opposition to PCHAS (a housing program for single mothers):It's nice and all, but please quit telling me to be safe.
Dear Ma'ams and Sirs,
I write to express my disappointment in my hometown's apparent opposition to the extension of charitable aid to the most vulnerable in our community.
I grew up in Westbury. I remember my neighborhood as a place where children of many races and creeds - Blacks, Whites and Indians, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Jews - played together in the streets.
Sometimes there were problems - like the time I watched helplessly as my mother was mugged in front of our local library. But I remember those problems as rare exceptions that proved the rule, that Americans of differing backgrounds and social classes could live and learn together in harmony.
I give my hometown and the lessons I learned there great credit for making me the man I am today. I sincerely hope that my old neighbors will continue to look past our superficial differences to see the common humanity that binds us.
Georgetown University School of Foreign Service graduate - 2002
United States Marine infantry officer, Decorated veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq
Georgetown University Law Center anticipated graduate - May 2013
Widely published freelance journalist and photographer
Against my better judgment, I'm posting this on Facebook. Flame away.
People keep telling me to be safe (as if that’s an option), keep asking me why I’m doing this crazy thing, keep asking what’s wrong with me for coming here. So listen.
Our granddads stormed Normandy and Iwo Jima and defeated global fascism. Neil Armstrong flew to the Moon in a glorified trashcan, doing math on a clipboard as he went. Before there were roads, the Pioneers put one foot in front of the other until they walked across the entire continent. Then a bunch of them went down to fight and die in Texas ‘cause they thought it was the right thing to do.
Sometime between when our granddads licked the Nazis and when we started putting warnings on our coffee cups about the temperature of our beverage, America lost that pioneering spirit. We became a fat, weak, complacent, coddled, unambitious and cowardly nation. I went off to two wars with misguided notions of patriotism and found in both that the first priority was to never get killed, something we could have achieved from our living rooms in America with a lot less hassle. To protect careers and please the politicians, we weighed ourselves down with enough armor to break a man’s back, gorged on RipIts and ice cream, and believed our own press that we were doing something noble. Our granddads would have whipped our asses.
We kill ourselves every day with McDonald’s and alcohol and a thousand other drugs, but we’ve lost the sense that there actually are things out there worth dying for. We’ve given away our freedoms piecemeal to robber barons, but we’re too complacent to do much but criticize those few who try to point out the obvious. Americans have lost their sense of vision, mistaking asinine partisan squabbles for principles. When we do venture into space – the part of space we’ve gotten comfortable with, mind you – now we pay the Russians to give us a ride. That’s humiliating. I can’t believe we let that happen.
So that’s why I came here to Syria, and it’s why I like being here now, right now, right in the middle of a brutal and still uncertain civil war. Every person in this country fighting for their freedom wakes up every day and goes to sleep every night with the knowledge that death could visit them at any moment. They accept that reality as the price of freedom. They realize there are things worth fighting for, and instead of sitting around wringing their hands about it, or asking their lawyer to file an injunction about it, they’re out there just doing it. And yeah most of them have little idea what they’re doing when they pick up a rifle, and yes there are many other things I could complain about, but really who cares. They’re alive in a way that almost no Americans today even know how to be. They live with greater passion and dream with greater ambition because they are not afraid of death.
Neither were the Pioneers. Neither were our granddads. Neither was Neil Armstrong. And neither am I.
No, I don’t have a death wish – I have a life wish. So I’m living, in a place, at a time and with a people where life means more than anywhere I’ve ever been – because every single day people here lay down their own for the sake of others. Coming here to Syria is the greatest thing I’ve ever done, and it’s the greatest feeling of my life.
And look, if you still don’t get it, go read Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. That book explains it all better than I ever could.
The first person to write "Be safe" in the comments, I'm coming after you.