James Foley led an exceptional life. On August 19, the world learned that Foley, who was captured in Syria by ISIS terrorists two years ago, was beheaded in retaliation for recent US bombings of ISIS positions in Iraq. He was exceptional, but not privileged. He was not famous.
He was a free-lancer, mostly on his own in the world’s most dangerous places. He was poorly paid and likely didn’t even get health insurance.
He was just one free-lance photojournalist taken hostage by an enemy. He was among the itinerant shock troops of the news profession, the media soldiers serving news outlets that are willing to have them risk their lives to generate stories and photos, but unwilling to spend their capital to give them a secure base, and a dependable income.
Foley didn’t get paid the millions of dollars the networks provide to their fluffed and puffed anchors, the people who for the most part read the news, not cover it.
He didn’t get the attention of the media elite, so fixated on the minor travails of David Gregory, who was inelegantly dropped from Meet the Press last week.
He didn’t get the access to power afforded that small circle who cover the President, having to endure those tedious stints on Martha’s Vineyard or Hawaii, or face the backpedaling and obfuscation of the White House press secretary.
He didn’t get the comps and perks of the reporters who cover Hollywood, or write about film, and jet off to Cannes.
He wasn’t a household word, like the people who host the morning shows and have a loyal following and present the news, interspersed with segments on cooking and hair care.
He didn’t have millions of twitter followers, like some of the entertainment bloggers.
What James Foley was, was a journalist. As his parents said, a person who gives witness. A person whose sense of mission is unquenchable. Like a fireman compelled to go back into a burning building to look for survivors, Foley returned to the world’s most dangerous places to make sure that the rest of us did not forget about those enduring great violence, fear and deprivation.
James Foley was special in life because he risked his to force us to see the world’s sorrows and face the world’s injustice.
He was special in death because long after this stint of terrorism is over, his example and his work will inspire generations of reporters who come into this profession not for the money or fame or public acclaim, but because they are called to give witness. At the very least, these brave reporters and photojournalists deserve real jobs, with sufficient pay and health insurance. But they should receive so much more – our respect, admiration and our loyalty.
Let us hope that in the future, the profession may be worthy of Foley’s legacy and that of his colleagues putting themselves in harm’s way.