Can you name any of the Iraqis or Syrians who died the same week as James Foley?
This question was asked to a standing room audience in the McCormick Foundation Center forum by Matthieu Aikins, a freelance writer who was honored with the 2013 James Foley Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism on Wednesday, Dec. 3. The award was recently renamed in honor of Foley (MSJ08), a freelance journalist who was killed by extremists in the Middle East in August 2014.
Aikins raised the question while reflecting on Foley’s legacy and what role media have in covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as unrest in the Middle East. Aikins and Foley never met, but Aikins said through the small network of Western journalists covering the Middle East region, they have mutual friends. He asked one of these friends what Foley would’ve thought about the medal being renamed in his honor.
“She thought Jim would be honored but uncomfortable,” Aikins said. Foley’s work, as well as Aikins’s, is about telling stories of people who normally wouldn’t be noticed. The difference between how his story subjects are remembered and how his own killing is remembered would’ve bothered Foley, Aikins said.
Much of Aikins’s talk focused on the problem that some deaths receive more media coverage than others, and whether Western media has an ethical responsibility to change that disparity.
“We’re talking about a global discourse that affects the realities of millions of people’s lives,” Aikins said. “What’s published in the New York Times or the Washington Post is as relevant to the lives and fates of Iraqis and Afghans as it is to people in New York or Washington. I think it’s worth talking about this difference.”
Aikins was selected to win the medal for the “The A-Team Killings,” his 2013 Rolling Stone article that makes the case that a 12-man U.S. Army Special Forces team, along with an Afghan translator, committed war crimes in Wardak Province in Afghanistan. The crimes included killings, torture and kidnapping.
The incidents happened two years ago, but, Aikins said, the U.S. military’s track record for accountability is deeply flawed.
“I think it’s unlikely that these victims will ever face justice, unfortunately,” he said.
Foley was also named an honorary winner of the medal that now bears his name.
“We will remember Jim not for the grim tragedy of his death but for the determined and committed work that he offered within his lifetime,” said Dick Stolley (BSJ52, MSJ53), a member of the Medill Board of Advisers and one of the judges for the medal.