• Steven Senne/AP PHOTOS
  • The media claimed James Foley as one of their own after his death.

Last Friday my friend Dave Jones, a former Reader colleague, e-mailed me asking me to weigh in on James Foley. David had just read Michael Lev’s tribute to Foley in the Tribune as an uncommonly brave and committed journalist who understood the risks and accepted them as the price to be paid for doing work that must be done.” Lev, a former Tribune foreign correspondent with combat experience in the Middle East, identified with Foley as someone who experienced “that sort of high of being close to combat and being able to come back and tell that story.”

Dave believed there was no comparison between Lev’s working conditions as a Tribune employee and Foley’s, as a freelancer. (When I asked Lev about that he pretty much agreed, but said the differences were beyond the scope of his tribute.) Jones urged me to say so; I didn’t to his satisfaction, but there was so much heat and light behind his argument that I told him it deserved to be made in his own words and at his own length. I’ll give you the space, I said. He took me up on my offer and here’s what he has to say, in an essay he calls . . .

“Ultimate cost of newsroom cuts”

By Dave Jones

The James Foley execution video has been bothering me, more and more each day.

By now, a week or so following its initial Internet posting, having watched the actual horrific video only once, the freeze-frame from that video suffices to haunt: the near-bald young American man in the telltale orange jumpsuit of the prisoner, kneeling beside the black-clad, hooded executioner looming above him, standing rigidly erect as Justice itself, both men framed against a stark background of sand dune and sharp blue sky that would do justice to the existential meditations of Paul Bowles or Albert Camus.

I have no serious business putting myself in James Foley’s work shoes, never having put myself in a combat zone, neither as soldier nor war reporter, but something about his pathetic end crept deep under my skin and has only burrowed deeper and more rankling as the past week of tributes and media celebrations of his professional “heroism” have filled our newspapers, airwaves, and Internet news streams with stories that are more or less trumpeting one common elegiac theme: “James Foley, one of our own.”

In his death, the news media have proudly claimed the man in a way they never much honored or served him in his life and work.

Last Friday, August 22, Tribune editorial writer Michael Lev wrote a perspective piece (“The dangers of being a war correspondent”) on Foley’s sad fate in a dangerous business, framing in the young man’s death story amongst recollection of adventurous tales of WWII-era correspondents for the Tribune, along with brief mention of his own more recent experiences as a staff war reporter in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The flat, uninflected comparisons read as if Lev was gentlemanly chucking the shoulder of a fallen comrade from the same corporation.

But James Foley, as we all should know by now, was a freelance. And, in the news business today, that can make a world of difference—a life-or-death difference these days.

On the same day as Lev’s piece appeared, an August 21 article in the Guardian by Martin Chulov (“James Foley and fellow freelancers: exploited by pared-back media outlets”) was circulating in social media news streams and made painfully clear just how different the working conditions have become for front-line war reporters since the “good old days” of foreign correspondence, in recent times since most major news-gathering corporations have begun savaging their newsrooms in the effort to show civilized margins in the boardroom.

Reading through both takes on the James Foley execution that day, the fact that Michael Lev couldn’t see fit to spend a sentence or two contextualizing and accounting for Foley’s fate in the new terms of the news business was maddening enough to prompt a note to Michael Miner at the Reader, asking him, as media columnist, to open the discussion a little further, shed a little more of Chulov’s light on Lev’s superficial treatment of the plight of today’s freelance war reporter.

As I wrote to Mike, to me, as a sin of omission, it’s an important perceptual lapse: people see a guy like James Foley out there and most likely think of his war correspondent role in some old-school “Hollywood” way, as if he has a battery of battle-wise overseers, handlers, protectors setting him up for most of the most dangerous situations he’s going to be entering into. When, really, now almost all of these guys are out there operating without a net, on very slim and often suspicious “pack” authority, many of them buzzing along on not much more than nerve, ambition, and adrenaline, in a kind of competitive battlefield paparazzi swarm, mostly fending for themselves.

But when we get our morning/evening and/or online news feeds from these reporters/photographers/videographers—whatever kit they’re carrying around with them on any given day—with proprietary tags underneath saying GlobalPost or PostGlobal or WhatEver, some woolly antiquated line of thought still occurs for many people that these correspondents are working for some kind of established news organization that is guiding them in some way, giving them assignments that will somehow “embed” them with a protective agency of some kind, shielding them from predictable levels of harm, and assisting in getting them out of various hard-case professional difficulties. Or paying at least enough life insurance benefit to bury them and offer some form of consolation to their grieving families.

With most of the reporting I’m reading, seeing, hearing on poor James Foley, I think that’s the background scenario that most people carry around about such things, if we bother to worry about him at all, as anything other than another fallen “American hero.” So it bothered me to see Lev lumping Foley together with the WWII guys of Great Generation acclaim and with his own comparatively sheltered, corporately covered reporting stint in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

A photojournalist friend made trips to battle zones for the Trib that sounded like they were plotted more carefully than the military operations themselves. In one case, the Tribune had him flying into Croatia on a cargo plane loaded with military bigwigs, politicians, and a few of their wives. James Foley couldn’t have come close to getting a whiff of those high-altitude fumes.

My brother-in-law was a Canadian vice consul for Afghanistan, and he’d travel in packs of government officials and news staffers that couldn’t have been closer more safely kept if they’d all been glued together under a Stephen King dome. He loathed just about every minute of his time spent over there in the final stage of Canada’s participation in the Afghan war, but certainly understood and appreciated all the institutional layers of protection he and his people had.

James Foley and those other cubs out there hustling to get their pictures and stories, they don’t have any of that protection hovering over them. But I think most of America—God-blessed America—thinks the story’s still pretty much the same as it was in the days of Bill Mauldin and Ernie Pyle.

And I think it is a singular shame on the megabucks news organizations that they’re showing their corporate boards all the money they saved in their newsrooms at the same time these James Foleys are out on their own, risking their lives in ever more perilous ways, to feed them in their ever-more-voracious need for “content.”

Their cuts in “personnel” are adding up to very real costs in life and limb (and, yes, livelihoods) of actual persons. And people should know that.

It does bother me. That no one notes that the newspapers themselves have pretty much withdrawn from the battlefield(s). Leaving the poor new J-school schmoes and renegades with camera gear out there to act as reporter-cameraman-field editor-upload technician-producer, doing all the dirty work and dying on nobody’s dime but their own. Ending up feeding the mainstream media with a week or two of stories on their bravery and martyrdom that mostly fail to mention the dangerous new calculus of the news business by which they died.

Smacks of the gladiatorial to me.

Thumbs down.