nor•ton•esque

LOSING ANTHONY SHADID

In W.P. Norton on February 23, 2012 at 2:01 pm

Anthony Shadid was a whirling dervish of a writer as far back as 1987, when he presented himself for duty at the Daily Cardinal, the student-run newspaper where we served 40,000-something readers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Anthony (always Anthony, never “Tony”) swirled through our newsroom with the untamed force of a funnel cloud smashing through the storied Tornado Alley landscape of his native Oklahoma.

Anthony’s preternatural reporting powers made me feel the bitterest kind of professional jealousy in the years that followed his flight from the Cardinal nest. The ill feelings vanished on Feb. 14, 2011, when he emailed me a far more courteous note than I expected in answer to a question I’d posed about the so-called Arab Spring. In March of that same year, Anthony and three New York Times colleagues were taken by forces loyal to Libya’s then dictator.

Though dogged by degradation and threats of death, events would prove kinder to the Times quartet than to their driver, who was immediately subject to summary execution on day one of the ordeal. With wide eyes and gritted teeth, several dozen of Anthony’s former Cardinal colleagues and I came together on Facebook and other social media, following the six-day drama to its last act, when the Libyan dictatorship freed Shadid plus three.

There was no theoretical limit to what he might achieve in years to come, I emailed Anthony then. Further Pulitzers (he’d already earned two) would be child’s play, I said; even a Nobel Prize. High political office was in his future, I gushed; perhaps the presidency of a university, if he ever wanted to take things a little easier. Before his death, reportedly of asthma, at age 43 while on assignment in Syria this past Thursday, February 16th, the Times put him up for a third Pulitzer — a rare trifecta in the history of journalism.

One can only guess how absurd he may have found the many effusions of my message to Shadid. He was the Mozart of modern journalism, I said. Exposing himself further to such extreme risks as a desert combat situation would be incredibly selfish of him, and an unforgivable loss of a voice that the world badly needed to hear.

Pride defeated envy as I went on to recall how I’d handed him my New York Times campus stringer gig some 24 years before and strongly endorsed his candidacy for the internship he earned at Madison’s powerhouse of an alternative weekly newspaper, Isthmus. I stressed that it had never once occurred to me that my helping him would make a whit of difference to his career, because I saw his rise to superlative achievement as inevitable even then.

I hope to be committing no violation of privacy in quoting Anthony’s reply, time-stamped with the date of March 29, 2011: “I read your note twice, and I’m going to keep it, even if it is far too kind. The Cardinal days seem like so long ago, but they really were the place we all became who we are.”

Handing off these minor boons to Anthony was something I saw as a matter of public service — the right thing to do for those publications in particular, and for the institution of journalism writ large.

He would have gotten where he did if I had never existed. But I do treasure the fact of having had the chance to know him once. The sorrow of the moment is eased however slightly by the knowledge that I told him so before that chance was taken from us all.

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