James Foley
  • Steven Senne/AP PHOTOS
  • James Foley

Michael Lev didn’t know James Foley, but he knows the business Foley was in. A former foreign correspondent now an editorial writer for the Tribune, Lev published a story Friday called “The dangers of being a war correspondent.” Lev was in Pakistan and Afghanistan after 9/11. You want to stay safe, he explains, but “you are there to get the story.”

Foley, a freelancer covering the uprising in Libya for GlobalPost, was captured and held prisoner there for more than a month in 2011. Afterward he allowed that if the experience taught him to be careful, you could only be so careful. “There is always that allure for some people of combat . . . ” he said, “that sort of high of being close to combat and being able to come back and tell that story.”

Lev could identify.

He wrote his piece as a tribute to Foley, who was captured in Syria in 2012 and beheaded a few days ago by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. Lev’s story didn’t satisfy a friend of mine who dropped me a note. He complained that Lev “doesn’t touch at all on the fact that Foley, and so many guys like him, are out there risking their lives without benefit of any institutional experience, reconnaissance, personnel, or material support behind them. Seems to me truly, deeply disingenuous not to mention the stark and scary difference in that reporting today, the way papers/outlets like the Tribune cheap it out at the expense of lives like Foley’s.”

He gave me a link to a story Thursday by Martin Chulov in the Guardian. Chulov, who reported from Libya during and after that uprising, described Foley as a type—as someone who showed up “with a sense of purpose and opportunity and, at times, immunity to the dangers,” and who enjoyed “plenty of potential buyers for his frontline images.”

And after Libya, Syria, where Foley “was again front and centre” and the same markets were just as eager—until his luck ran out. Chulov allowed that staff journalists as well as freelancers have been captured in Syria, but his beef is with media that buy by the piece. He accused them of “exploitation.” He wrote, “Stripped down, pared-back journalism has created opportunities for those who dare, but it has also allowed outlets to hide behind flaky bottom lines as a means of abdicating responsibility. Radio stations, television networks and print outlets continue to outsource their coverage to reporters who often work without basic protection. The price of that dereliction has been paid in the dungeons of north Syria.”

I’m not sure what Chulov means by flaky bottom lines—flaky is a colorful word, but if he thinks the bottom lines are fraudulent he should say so. And what is basic protection? What shield would, say, a New York Times press pass have raised against ISIS?

But I think Chulov is on to something and I emailed Lev at the Tribune. What did he think? When the correspondent in the field talks every day to a foreign editor back home who knows him and knows his family and keeps reminding him there’s no story worth getting killed over, is his behavior, possibly, a little more prudent? I reminded Lev of how staff reporter Paul Salopek’s welfare became the only thing that mattered to the Trib when he was arrested in Sudan in 2006.

Lev wrote back that he was on deadline and hadn’t had time to read Chulov’s piece—but he got my drift. “I felt an obligation to write something to honor James Foley and provide my own perspective on why war correspondents do what they do,” he replied. “I didn’t want the piece to be about me any more than required.”

He didn’t know Foley and he didn’t know anything about his working relationship with GlobalPost or anyone else. He wouldn’t speculate on what kind of support Foley did or didn’t get. But he remembered that in 2002 when he crossed into Afghanistan he could afford to spend “hundreds of dollars a day” on cars and drivers and fixers. If he teamed up with a freelancer or two all he’d ask was that they “contribute what they could.”

He told me, “I haven’t had time to read the Guardian story but if they raise the issue of freelancers, that’s great. I was deeply appreciative of the Tribune‘s support of me, and my colleagues, when I was correspondent. That included superb editing and guidance, emotional support and of course financial support. It was always a different game for freelance reporters; they had it tougher, for sure. Frankly I couldn’t have done it.”