In praise of James Foley and Steven Sotloff

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I was especially touched by the beheadings of two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff. For this retired journalist, their deaths felt almost personal.

Islamic extremists in Iraq and Syria quickly claimed credit for these grisly killings. My heart goes out to their families. It’s hard to imagine their shock and horror. I doubt that it’s comforting for them to remember that James and Steven volunteered for their reporting assignments.

Their deaths remind all Americans that a free, unfettered press can sometimes carry a high price. These deaths also remind us that hundreds of other journalists abroad face risks that the average person would never subject themselves to.

Yet their courageous work provides a window on otherwise little understood regions of the world, whether that’s Somalia, Gaza or the Ukraine. Unlike government spokesmen and women, the reporters don’t have a party line to parrot. They’re committed to telling the whole story, as much as they’re able, to their fellow Americans.

I’ve traveled abroad with other journalists based in the States. I’ve had the honor of meeting U.S. foreign correspondents, in Israel, in Lebanon, in North Africa, Vietnam, Cambodia and Eastern Europe. Over two days, I witnessed Czechoslovakia’s first free elections in 44 years. If you only read about American journalists in such faraway lands, you might assume they lead pretty glamorous lives.

Yet even if they’re not the target of extremists, as in the case of Foley and Sotloff, their reporting tests all their talents and reporting skills to the max. In foreign countries they face skeptical political leaders, not to mention reformists who don’t know if the Americans can be trusted. Even when these journalists have studied the language of the local country, they’re likely to miss the nuances of the local idiom.

Our journalists abroad have helped us understand the fall of Communism in Europe. Early on, they warned us of the folly of the U.S. military intervention in Vietnam. They’ve kept us on top of events as Russia has encroached on the territory of a sovereign country. You hear their reports on the evening news and begin to think of them as friends.

I’m hoping that administration follows through on Vice President Biden’s promise that the United States will follow Foley and Sotloff’s killers to the gates of hell. I know a lot of journalists would second that solemn vow.

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