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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

After Foley’s Death, Former War Reporter Says It’s Not Worth The Risk

Journalist James Foley is pictured in Aleppo, Syria, in September, 2012. (Manu Brabo/freejamesfoley.org via AP)

Journalist James Foley is pictured in Aleppo, Syria, in September, 2012. (Manu Brabo/freejamesfoley.org via AP)

Tom A. Peter is a freelance war reporter. (tomapeter.com)

Tom A. Peter is a freelance war reporter. (tomapeter.com)

War reporting is dangerous. We were reminded of that today with the news that journalist Steven Sotloff has apparently been beheaded by an Islamic State militant.

The video of the beheading follows another, last month, of journalist James Foley being killed by a militant from the same group, also known as ISIS.

One might reasonably ask: Is the job of chronicling war worth the risk? For one reporter, the answer is that it would be if more people paid attention to it. But they don’t. So it’s not.

This is what moved freelancer Tom A. Peter to write about in the New Republic following Foley’s death. Peter covered the Middle East and Afghanistan for seven years, and now he’s describing his disillusionment with the job.

Interview Highlights: Tom A. Peters

On the attitude towards the media

“Over three quarters of the people think that the media is inaccurate…a majority of people simply don’t trust it. And more people find the media immoral than they do moral. When you have this attitude that the media is lying to you or you believe that all reporting  that doesn’t  agree with what you already believe is inaccurate, you’re not doing your job as a citizen. You’re kind of shirking your civic duty to be informed.”

On the risks of war reporting

“The most terrifying thing that ever happened to me in reporting—we were going and visiting an area  that had been recently liberated by the opposition or — taken by the opposition. And as we were driving back I was with a group of reporters, a car cut us off and guys — masked men — jumped out with guns. Once they pulled our driver out and drove off with us, it was kind of impossible to escape at the moment. You have to kind of accept this fate that potentially I’m going to be taken somewhere and executed or held indefinitely. The level of terror you feel when something like that happen is difficult to describe.”

On the impact of James Foley’s death

“I would hope that if anything comes out of this that maybe it can be a wake up call to news consumers that ‘hey look there are people out there taking huge risks, risking it all to bring you the facts’. So pay attention, read them and don’t think there’s some giant conspiracy out there. I can assure you that the vast majority of legitimate journalists really do want to bring you the truth.”


  • Tom A. Peter, freelance journalist who covered the Middle East and Afghanistan for seven years. He currently writes about border security and immigration. He tweets @TomAPeter.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Maggie

    I think that he should switch career path to one that pays more money. He sounds as if he feels unappreciated-and very whiny! He reminded me of that TV show The First 48 Hours; cops start by complaining about lack of time with their families and sleep depravation. Well get another job, totally understandable. People continue to join the military (to become part of a military body which by definition fight wars-by the way I’m a veteran), and high risk careers, risk not concealed to begin with, and then whine about their sacrifices. Then don’t do it. He puts some of the blame on the “news consumer”, well as a news consumer sir, I throw the blame right back at you and your colleges sir; we hardly ever get the facts, but media’s hidden agendas and personal opinions. I say get another job, fatten your back account, and find fulfillment in doing so. Stop blaming others when your expectations are not met.

  • Cogito

    With all due respect to complaints about folks not trusting media, bear in mind that the Gray Lady herself helped shoehorn us into the 2nd Iraq war; and that Faux News is, day in and day out, a lying and distorting propagaganda arm of the right wing (not that its habitual audience has caught on; indeed they cheerfully imbibe its poisonous emanations.) And media coverage overall misses the point of stories time and time again – even NPR is decidedly flabby at times, eschewing “hard talk” at the worst times.
    As far as Syria, yes, maybe we shoulda bombed Assad, and then what? Seen his chemical arsenal dispersed throughout the Middle East?
    The news was awful. What was as awful was so little to do about it, such an unclear path. Sometimes the best action IS non-action. Don’t you think Americans have had quite enough of foreign adventurism that turns out badly?
    As for the ignorance of some sectors of the American public, I don’t think that’s anything new. And “yellow journalism” is not new either.

    • J.D.

      FAUX news…hahahahahah…

  • Don

    I appreciate and respect the news from reporters on the scene. Reports from Pew Research and other survey companies probably includes the attitudes of people when it comes to all news outlets. Obviously, there are news outlets(FOX and others) that are extremely biased and not interested in telling the whole truth. So, there is a healthy mistrust of news outlets. People should be reading news from a couple of different sources to check information to decide if it is true……if they care about the subject. I do. Thank you, Tom, for the work you have done…….whether or not you stay in the game. Good luck.

    • Cacimo

      Guess you are unaware that NPR has admitted to having a lefty bias.

      • Tristan Thompson

        You would have to lack common sense to not be able to figure that out for yourself.

        • BunnyOlesen

          HAHA really – oh, they ‘admitted’ that? lol

      • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

        “Guess you are unaware that NPR has admitted to having a lefty bias.”

        OMG, hilarious. NPR is about as leftwing as Eric Cantor. 40 years ago, yes, NPR was leftwing. But it hasn’t even tended left in the past 35 years. If anything, it is painfully mainstream, pro-corporate, don’t-rock-the-boat.

  • Whamadoodle

    Heartbreaking reading and listening.
    I read the news, but I know I’m in the minority. One thing I DON’T do, I can tell you truly, is claim “why aren’t they covering x___? They aren’t covering x___!” without actually doing enough reading to know whether “they” are or not.

  • Lil Wood

    This is sad, and I don’t quibble with his conclusion that it’s not worth it. However, these reporters are creating a record that lives on — and that’s worth something. Their stories don’t just get thrown down a well when it’s time to recycle the newspaper. Anyway, that’s what I’m telling myself as a comfort.

  • Jon Latimer

    Maybe Tom should ask another question: why is it that so many people distrust (war) reporting so much these days? With media being more and more consolidated by a minority of hyper-rich corporations, falling in precisely along political party lines, but always siding behind American geopolitical interests, citizens have every right to question whether or not our news is accurate or just part of the propaganda machine. In my opinion this is the duty of every good citizen, and not something to be chastised for.

    • BunnyOlesen

      yeah, and it’s incredibly awful, terrible and tragic (to me) that these men have died, will die, been tortured/beaten etc., all so the MSM can report whatever lies the government apparently is instructing them to report. FOR EXAMPLE- we need to help the ”rebels” ‘liberate Syria’ and they’re the good guys and Assad is terrible and blah blah blah. The FAKE rebels in Syria are the same people in ISIS that killed these men, it has been well known from EARLY on that the people starting the ‘civil war’ were NOT EVEN SYRIAN and that a huge number of militants from a group in IRAQ were a huge part of the foundational impetus of this ‘war’. IF WE HAD HELPED ASSAD EARLY ON 10′s of thousands of Christians would not have been systematically searched out and murdered. The mayor of one town in Syria said well over a year ago that he had not seen a single Syrian in the ‘militia’ who ‘freed’ his town and had murdered every Christian in the village. They were from Qatar, Pakistan, Bahrain and even the Caucuses, right? Effing Chechnyans, hard core seasoned mujahadeen who really love killing. In addition, Sharia Al Nursra the same group responsible for the american embassy attack in Libya were there from the beginning. The entire lie is that this was a civil war, when in fact it is a terrorist occupation that seeks to systematically destroy all non-Sunnis – and perpetuating the lie and cover up of heinous massacres at the hands of the rebels is what OUR reporters are being killed in their effort to report.

  • cynicalfel

    The sad truth is, in the long term, Foley’s death was in vain. The majority of people don’t want to be told, or read, anything contrary to what they already know. Every war reporter is doing a thankless job, and the majority of readers will not notice or care about their reports unless they uncover a war crime or die.
    I’m not sure there would be a huge public outcry if every war reporter stopped and went back to do something safer. Some small group or organization might whine, but the majority of news consumers would hardly notice, I think.
    You may say I’m being too cynical, but consider this: How long will the people at large, who didn’t know Foley untill he was murdered, remember him and what was done? I’ll wager next year his story will just be another causality in the conflict.

    If you want to report on the war, journalists, I support your choice. But I’d prefer you do something safer, so we don’t see another report of some terrorist removing your head a year or two after you disappear. All because you wanted to deliver the truth to an uncaring audience.

  • Springski

    Although I respect the reporters decision that this line of work is not worth the risk, I think his blame of the consumer only is unbalanced. Of course the consumer is to blame in a way if applying the supply/demand principle. However, one must bear in mind that including television, print, and on-line reporting the consumer faces total saturation. Not all consumers are equipped to differentiate between the truth as Fox News sees it, and the truth as NPR sees it. To many, what they see is true and does not require us (the consumer) to approAch it with any doubt. What we as. Society allow to be presented as news has. Lot to do with it.

  • http://www.nikkibaschdavis.com Nikki Davis

    I fully agree with your guest about the public’s lack of involvement and wish to learn the true facts. Many gleam superficially the latest current events and are very quick in voicing criticism and joining marches supporting, what they see as, a wronged side without bothering to educate themselves with facts. The Gaza Israel last conflict was a perfect example.

  • J.D.

    While I do like the comments by Cogito (1of the email comments below) about “FAUX” news…whose news is blatantly right-wing propaganda…I do hope you and other journalists like you don’t remain disallusioned for long. I am just one little unimportant person so my views don’t matter much, but there are many people like me who DO LISTEN TO AND BELIEVE JOURNALISTS LIKE YOU!!! While we may not always speak up…WE ARE HERE!!! I understand your disallusionment, but PLEASE don’t let IDIOTS like the woman you spoke of keep you from reporting THE TRUTH! Like people are always saying to our soldiers, I would like to tell you, THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE, for you DO provide an extremely important service not just to the U.S. …you provide a service to the world! One more thing…I am truly sorry for your loss…the loss of your brave fellow journalists. Their deaths are truly a loss to our world. Please continue your honest repoting…but BE SAFE!!! Namaste…JD in Tulsa

  • teflonmom

    The problem seems to be that people have confused journalism with commentary. Inflammatory pundits love to scream and blame and point fingers and that’s good for grabbing eyeballs, ratings and money. News gathering is something different and always has been. Even partisan outlets with biased editorial boards used to have good ethical unbiased journalists. But we have so little reporting compared to the number of pundits, no wonder the public is confused. Also, now that the internet steers us to our own interests, it is easy to ignore the news. Back when people got their news form the paper, you ended up reading stuff that you didn’t even think you cared about because it was there in front of your face, and there wasn’t an unlimited amount of fluffly content to divert attention.

  • Chrisap

    While there is plenty of sloppy journalism out there, people interested in knowing what’s really going on will make the effort to sort through the rumor reporting, unnamed sources, the cut and pasters, the “some say…” innuendoes, and those with either a financial or ideological agenda….and appreciate the good, straight forward reporting.

    If Tom Peter is looking to be put on a pedestal as selfless public servants dedicated to truth— it may be difficult since there are no standards. Maybe journalists could create some certification that would mandate very high standards for accuracy and transparency, no conflict of interest, documentation, etc… and that would weed out the “reporters” that water down the respectability of the profession.

    However, as it stands now, journalists are down here with the rest of us..some good, some bad. Just like teachers and doctors.

    If Tom Peter thinks $100,000/year is a low salary ($400.00/day), and he doesn’t feel appreciated, he SHOULD change fields. For example, Medicine would probably afford him more money and more adulation. Law may not be highly respected, but it does pay alot

  • Cacimo

    Mr. Peter thinks becoming a lawyer is a good way to make lots of money today. Sounds like it is time he he stop complaining about no one reading his writing and start reading what others have written. The current ability of law students to repay their student debt may be worse than for reporters.

  • Mick

    I get all the news I need from brother Rush Limbaugh, you never hear him complain about the dangers of be a reporter.

  • http://ohiopress.org The Ohio Press

    While doing research on War Reporting, I came across an article by the New York Times titled:
    Russia Seizes Gas Plant Near Crimea Border, Ukraine Says

    “Armed men left the Moscow Hotel in Simferopol after taking over some floors.”

    Now I’ve seen many war documentaries and most of the time in the
    videos there are soldiers fighting with one guy holding a camera.
    Usually the video journalist has a combat helmet and kevlar vest to
    protect themselves from being shot. The helmets are labelled “PRESS” to
    show that they are not carrying a weapon.

    In this photo featured on the New York Times website, there are
    an army of journalists and one single gunmen. And all the journalists
    are casually hanging out in “hip” looking clothes talking on cell phones
    and taking photos and video.


    • BunnyOlesen

      Yeah, that sounds about right. They’re going to claim Russia did something and thats the center of a war zone, but they’re all standing around drinking cafe latte. What is mind-boggling to me and outrageously ridiculous, unbelievable is the U.S. administration TELLING Russia that ‘they need to stay out of the politics of other countries’ and then act like they give a squat about the sovereignty of any nation, telling Russia blah blah sovereignty of the Ukraine. OH and how about Serbia? Libya or any other country we’ve destroyed – they weren’t sovereign nations?

    • BunnyOlesen

      HAHA oh no, I clicked your link and I have to agree. THAT is the one of the weirdest photos I think I’ve seen. That man doesn’t even look REAL. Did you look at his hand? I swear it looks like he’s made out of rubber or a mannequin or something. His eyes look bizarre and cross eyed – and he is simply STRIDING through the lobby surrounded by bored looking reporters, directly facing the camera and walking towards the photographer staring directly into the lense. REALLY? Oh, hey Mr. Armed Gunman, over here! picture !! HAHA THANK YOU ‘The Ohio Press’.

      And BTW, yes, not only are photographers staging photographs – the media outlets are using both ‘real’ images (but of something ELSE) and completely doctored, photoshopped images to play up their angles and lies. I just read that Reuters ran with an article (few years ago) stating that Russian submersibles were ‘on the floor of the sea underneath the arctic’ (right, they’re planning a big antarctica takeover) and they had the proof of the photos. A 13 year old boy from Finland ‘outed’ them for their trickery when he noted the images were stills from the ‘Finding the Titanic’ documentary – the submersibles were Finnish made and used on the sea floor at wherever they found the Titanic. A 13 year old boy. Man, the media must really think we’re stupid.

      Here’s a link you may find interesting as well, as it is related to the Syria situation: CNN caught staging fake news about Syria to justify military intervention -

  • Daniel Hicks

    How dare he imply that I am not doing my duty as a citizen by not taking BigNews’ propaganda at face value. I’m sorry, but if you’re concerned that people don’t take your work seriously, maybe you could work to clean up your own industry before you start pointing fingers at the consumers.

  • Tomas Lang

    As a subscriber to many news outlets, I sometimes will find the top story of the day is one about which I know a great deal. Very few subjects, but the recent financial meltdown was centered around my profession for the last 40 years. After listening to 5 or so minutes of completely false and misleading reporting, my eyes glaze over when the next segment about foreign war (or nearly every other subject about which I know nothing) is aired. How do you process information about a subject on which you know nothing when you have listened night after night to complete rubbish on a topic on which you are well informed?

  • Michael Difani

    A good call, Mr. Peters. I think the number of reporters from several countries besides the U.S. killed in Indo-China during the ‘Nam war was in the several dozens. The toll during WWII and Korea must have been horrifying too.

  • davidw76

    I listened to this interview in disbelief. Isn’t it obvious why people no longer trust mainstream media coverage on topics like the middle east? I know it’s not the fault of reporters like James Foley or Tom Peter, but the organizations who publish their work have betrayed and misled their readers time and again. They were utterly complicit in the deceptions used to build public support for the invasion of Iraq, and despite apologizing for that episode, absolutely nothing has changed. And that includes NPR! That’s why many are turning to smaller outlets and blogs where any bias or agenda is at least out in the open. The myth that organizations like major newspapers or TV networks report “objectively” on the middle east has been totally shattered. Again, I’m not blaming people like Foley or Peter, they are brave men and doing important work. I am just pointing out that it is hardly a surprise that so many people distrust the traditional news sources on these issues.

  • George

    As a consumer of conservative and liberal media, I find biases in most reporting by the major outlets. For example, during the last presidential election I saw Diane Sawyer interview both Barak Obama and Mitt Romney. With Obama she was smiling and threw soft ball questions. With Romney, she had a serious, almost furrowed brow look and asked probing questions. Likewise on MSNBC, there was the same level of favoritism towards Obama and the democrats in general. Talk radio and Fox is highly biased in the opposite direction. In general the evening news has morphed into entertainment with stuff like the “instant index” on ABC which chews up time for real news. The American public is inundated with news, mostly commentary and we’re war weary. Added to this is the reality that the middle east is a very complex political situation with a mentality that is hard for American’s to understand. For example, I think many expected garlands of roses and gratitude for America ousting Sadaam in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan and handing these people democracy and reconstruction aid on a silver platter. When we saw our fellow Americans killed and billions of reconstructon aid wasted along with total ingratitude of the “freed people” we as a people detached. When Libya and Syria came along, most people I know wanted to stay out of those situations. We still want to remain detached, hence the indifference to the reporting of the dedicated journalist.

  • Dave

    Sectarian Violence.
    Why report on Religious violence.
    It never changes.
    30 Years War: RCC church, murder, rape, pillage. Sectarian violence.
    Same old, same old.
    War on Terrorism.

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