The freelance journalist's brutal murder may have been triggered by his Op-Ed in The New York Times. Why did the paper's editors forget this?
By David Paulin
Steven Vincent, the only American journalist murdered in Iraq, left behind an impressive body of work that is noteworthy for its incisive analysis and moral clarity. His book, “In the Red Zone: A Journey Into the Soul of Iraq,” drew on a number of fine articles, written mainly for conservative magazines such as National Review and FrontPage Magazine.
The quality of Vincent’s work owed much to the fact that he traveled alone, outside the Green Zone. He avoided the mainstream media’s formulaic reporting; it viewed the war, insurgency, and reconstruction through a prism of “mounting” casualties, suicide bombings, and prisoner abuse scandals.
When Vincent was murdered just over one year ago in the southern port city of Basra, the mainstream media responded with extensive coverage. His killing, it was widely noted, may have been in retaliation for an Op-Ed piece that Vincent published, two days earlier, in The New York Times.
Vincent described how the British Army had ignored the infiltration of Basra’s police force by Iranian-backed Shiite militias and political groups, including those loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. This coincided with a spike in fundamentalist violence in the southern port city.
He noted as well that police vehicles apparently were used to abduct and kill people. Coincidently, two days after that article ran, a vehicle similar to what Vincent had described intercepted the writer and his translator, Nour Itais, off a Basra street.
Later, Iraqi police found Vincent’s battered body on the outskirts of town with a gunshot wound to the head. Nour was shot and left for dead; but she survived.
Forgotten by The Times?
Today, the Times’ Op-Ed editors appear to have forgotten that Vincent’s Op-Ed piece may be the thing that got him killed. In an Op-Ed the Times ran on Sept. 6, "Iraq's Endangered Journalists," author Ali Fadhil overlooked Vincent’s death when writing about Iraq’s beleaguered journalists.
You can be sure Times’ Op-Ed editors scrutinized every word of that Op-Ed. Yet Fadhil, an Iraqi physician-turned journalist, wrote something that was obviously false: “As dangerous as Iraq is for foreign reporters, they at least have the advantage of being considered untouchable by the Iraqi police and security forces.”
What about Steven Vincent?
The most outraged New Yorker to read Fadhil’s Op-Ed was Vincent’s widow, Lisa Ramaci-Vincent. On Saturday, Sept. 9, the Times published a letter from her, calling attention to Fadhil’s oversight:
To the Editor:
While reading "Iraq's Endangered Journalists," by Ali Fadhil (Op-Ed, Sept. 6), I was shocked by his claim that "foreign reporters have the advantage of being considered untouchable by the Iraqi police and security forces."
Might I remind Mr. Fadhil that on Aug. 2, 2005, my husband, Steven Vincent, an American journalist living in and writing from Basra, was kidnapped and killed by five men in police uniforms?
Two days before Steven's murder, The New York Times ran an Op-Ed article he wrote in which he disclosed how the British Army was ignoring both the infiltration of the Basra police force by Iranian-backed Shiite militias, and the resulting spike in fundamentalist violence. He specifically mentioned the white police vehicles used to abduct and kill an ever-increasing number of people; two days later, one of those vehicles came for him.
Steven thus has the dubious distinction of being one of the few foreign journalists in this Iraq conflict specifically targeted for execution.
New York, Sept. 7, 2006
Just an Oversight?
How could the Times forget Vincent? Perhaps it was a simple oversight, completely innocent. Ostensibly, that’s probably the case. But such oversights often occur for unconscious reasons – the result of unconscious biases and ideological agendas.
Along these lines, consider that Fadhil’s harsh critique of Iraq’s news media fit neatly into the Times’ view that the Bush administration, besides embarking on an illegal and unnecessary war, has totally bungled Iraq’s reconstruction.
As to innate biases, deep down the Times’ Op-Ed editors probably fail to see Vincent as a serious journalist. He was not a tried and proven staff writer but a freelancer. Even worse, Vincent was a blogger, which merits little respect in the mainstream media.
No matter that Vincent’s blog had a large and loyal following, as demonstrated by the “blog burst” honoring him on the first-anniversary of his murder. Above all, Vincent’s biggest liability for Times' editors is probably that he was a hawk on the war (though he never, to be sure, voted for George Bush). They may have dismissed him, at least subconsciously, as a misguided crank.
The Belmont Club also saw something strange in the Times’ oversight: “(W)hy did the NYT leave him off the books? Beneath them or not one of them?” And it also offered some interesting speculation on the Vincent’s murder:
The most innocent explanation is that he was "outside the pattern". The regular journalists know the drill: when to work out of a hotel and work through stringers; when to "arrange" an interview which will provide the journalist with protection; and maybe, through the grapevine, know which stories not to cover unless you have recently bought a lot of life insurance.
When foreign journalists operate outside of the envelope as in the case of mainstream news anchors who made unscripted descents from American patrol vehicles, their risks increase dramatically. When Eason Jordan described his arrangements with Saddam for "access" he was probably stating a fact of life. If you don't have your own tank and infantry company along, a camera and a press pass provide scant protection.
It’s not just the Times that has a bad memory. Apparently, not a single newspaper or wire service article noted the one-year anniversary of Vincent’s death: August 2, 2005. It would have been the perfect occasion to update the status of his murder investigation; editors commonly run such stories on the anniversaries of headline-grabbing murders like Vincent’s.
Questions about Ali Fadhil
Aside from the Times’ slight to Vincent, Lisa Ramaci, and those who admired his work, there are questions worth asking about Ali Fadhil and his Op-Ed.
See letter (below) from reader identifying himself as Ali Fadhil, author of the NYT Op-Ed, who has complained about errors in this section of the article.
Certainly Fadhil is an interesting figure, both for his harrowing experiences in post-Saddam Iraq and his meteoric rise in journalism. The former physician, who is in his mid-30s, saw there was money to be made when big-time media outlets arrived with the U.S.-led invasion.
Switching from medicine to journalism, he ended up making a good living as a controversial pro-American blogger (supported with “private donations” from overseas groups) and as a writer and “media assistant” for a variety of news outlets.
As the war become unpopular, Fadhil went onto write for left-wing British publications. He produced a film and wrote articles about the U.S. assault on the Sunni-controlled rebel stronghold of Fallujah – portraying it as a vibrant city that U.S. forces destroyed, so to speak, in order to save it.
Fadhil, incidentally, was born a Sunni Muslim but last year he downplayed this fact. “I don’t look at myself as one now,” he told The New York Times, in a story about his controversial pro-American blog.
In his Op-Ed, Fadhil wrote: “The Western news media could not function in Iraq without the dedication of Iraqi journalists.” In fact, “Many of the biggest stories were either written by Iraqis or reported by them.”
And what stories might those have been? It’s an interesting question in light of ongoing concerns about the mainstream media’s biased coverage of the war, insurgency, and reconstruction. Part of the blame has been laid on the mainstream media’s heavy use of stringers, people with limited journalism experience and questionable allegiances.
Interestingly, people with Fadhil’s journalism experience – or lack of it – would not have a prayer of landing a newsroom job at the Times if they visited the paper’s personnel office and filled out an application. Yet in Iraq they played major roles in stories.
Moreover, Fadhil noted, such work put them on dazzling fast-track careers with Western publications and broadcast companies. He’s now a Fulbright fellow at New York University. Vincent, in contrast, struggled on a freelancer’s salary, earning maybe $300 to $500 per story. Sales of his book were ho-hum but picked up considerably after his murder. He was starting to think of himself as a failure, his wife recalled.
Perhaps Fadhil’s transformation from pro-American blogger to a darling of Britain's anti-American press reflected heartfelt convictions, not opportunism calculated to give editors what they wanted. There’s no shame in changing one’s mind. Vincent himself had doubts about the war at the time of his death. But he also felt it was imperative to stay the course.
Fadhil’s Op-Ed also raised some troubling concerns. Iraq’s news media, he argued, is now heading toward media models like those in Iran, Saudi Arabia or Syria.
Certainly, if true, these allegations are worth investigating. Fadhil blames the problem on the dismantling of U.S.-backed programs that had once supported Iraq’s nascent post-Saddam news media. At the same time, however, his Op-Ed had some points that appeared problematic – and contradictory.
“Today journalists in Iraq face death threats from all sides,” he warned. He complained as well that Iraq’s “prime minister threatened to close any news media outlet that insufficiently supports the Iraqi government in its fight against sectarian violence.”
But what’s wrong with that?
Perhaps the Times and Fulbright selection committee would disagree, but in the face of a monstrous nihilistic insurgency and Islamic fanatics, it hardly seems unreasonable to close down publications that fail to support efforts to stop sectarian violence.
Moreover, it’s perplexing that Fadhil would suggest that such a crackdown would help move Iraq’s press freedoms toward the media models found in Iran, Saudi Arabia or Syria. Presumably, the greatest threat to Iraq’s journalists is from insurgents and extremist Islamic groups that – horror of horrors – the prime minister is attempting to marginalize by denying them publicity, even if that means journalists lose the freedom to be irresponsible.
Come now, Dr. Fadhil, you can’t have it both ways. Except, perhaps, in the fairy tale world of New York’s academic and media elites in which Fadhil now moves.
Trigger Happy Troops?
Fadhil at one point nearly repeats former CNN news chief Eason Jordan’s career-ending slander that U.S. forces have deliberately targeted journalists:
“(T)he American soldiers who were so helpful to us in the early days of the occupation now have a different attitude. By 2005, if an Iraqi journalist aimed a camera at a United States Army convoy, the soldiers’ rules of engagement allowed them to shoot. American soldiers have been responsible for the deaths of about 14 journalists in Iraq, the majority of them Iraqis.”
What could have made those soldiers so nasty? Perhaps it was the nature of Iraq’s insurgency and suicide bomb attacks? Not to mention the avalanche of negative media coverage that, according to most soldiers, consistently failed to capture progress which they saw being made.
Along these lines, consider a story in online magazine Salon, "The Victim and the Killer," written by Phillip Robertson, a longtime foreign correspondent. Intent on finding the U.S. sniper who killed a friend, an Iraqi doctor-turned stringer who worked for Knight-Ridder, Robertson got himself an embed slot. He snooped around. After two weeks, he came upon a likely suspect: a “tall, good looking man,” he wrote, who was part of the 256th Brigade Combat Team.
Chatting with the sniper about his work, Robertson nudged him to talk about the death of Yassir Salihee, 30, who was mistaken for a suicide bomber as he drove erratically one night toward a Baghdad intersection.
The sniper became nervous, wrote Robertson, telling him, “I really hope he was a bad guy.”
The shooting was justified, according to a month-long military investigation that included an interview with an Iraqi witness. Editor & Publisher, the trade magazine that covers the newspaper industry, called Robertson’s piece “the most remarkable” of the war.
But author Greg Mitchell, well known for his odd left-wing views, quoted a Knight-Ridder editor as saying that "it bothers me somewhat" that Robertson was "not being totally honest... embedding with the military with the purpose of doing his own investigation into this. Give Mitchell credit for at least adding some balance to the story.
Fadhil has had his own run-in with U.S. troops. In his Op-Ed, he mentioned the night troops stormed into his home after they “blew out the doors with explosives and shot several bullets into the bedroom where my wife, 3-year-old daughter, 6-month-old son and I were sleeping.
“They destroyed our furniture, and I was hand-flexed, hooded and taken to an unknown place. It turned out that the raid was connected to the kidnapping of Jill Carroll, the Christian Science Monitor reporter who had been abducted in my neighborhood the day before. The Americans apologized and gave me $500 for the time I spent with them and $1,000 for the damage to the house. I was released the next morning.”
No doubt such stories are told and retold at New York University as Fadhil relates Iraq’s grim realities. One hopes that, for balance, Fadhil also mentions some of the abuses he suffered under Saddam’s rule; or perhaps his Sunni background spared him such indignities; or perhaps Saddam’s men provided him with better compensation than the Americans when he was the victim of mistaken identify.
UPDATE: Steven Vincent was one of two freelance journalists honored in 2006 with the Fifth Annual Kurt Schork Awards in International Journalism. Vincent was recognized posthumously for his work revealing the existence of police death squads in Iraq. Vincent’s widow, Lisa Ramaci, will receive the award and a $5,000 prize during ceremonies in London. The Kesher Talk blog has more here and here.
Also, see my earlier article about Steven Vincent, "Soldier With A Pen."
Author's note: "Steven Vincent: Forgotten by The New York Times," received some copyediting shortly after the original post. Also, the phrase "anti-British" was changed to "anti-American."