Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and UW alumnus Anthony Shadid told a capacity crowd at the Pyle Center Thursday evening that he found the information released about Iraq by Wikileaks to be refreshing. Although the journalism community has had mixed reactions to this massive release of classified documents, Shadid candidly stands at one end of the spectrum.
“I should probably be a little more ambiguous and grey about this, but I think it’s wonderful,” he said. “It’s a wonderful disclosure, this transparency and this openness of public office. I find it incredibly refreshing and incredibly insightful, as well.”
As a journalist who has covered the Middle East for the last decade, Shadid was intrigued by documents that revealed U.S. intervention in and instigation of Lebanese conflicts. The Wikileaks documents, he said, are “incredibly revelatory.”
“It’s something that just struck me, how often, so often as a journalist, [there] is that divide of what’s going on and what we hear,” he said. “It gives me more of a license to be skeptical and to be critical . . . and I think we see it in both the cases of Iraq and Lebanon.”
On the other side of the argument, Jeffrey T. Kuhner of the conservative-leaning Washington Times actually called for the assassination of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in his Dec. 2 opinion piece.
Kuhner called Assange a “clear and present danger to American national security” and “more than a reckless provocateur,” accusing him of “aiding and abetting terrorists.”
“[Assange’s] release of more than 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables, many of them containing classified information, is a major blow to our foreign policy,” Kuhner wrote. “The essence of diplomacy — especially that of a great power — is the ability to conduct negotiations and hold talks in secret.”
As such, Kuhner called for “the administration” to “take care of the problem — effectively and permanently.”
Although Kuhner presents legitimate concerns that the government and military must address in relation to the leaks, Shadid recounted a story from his time in Iraq about an informant during the early stages of the American invasion. Like Kuhner, tribal leadership called for the informant’s death.
The informant’s cooperation, Shadid said, led to the upheaval of the village after an operation named “Peninsula Strike.” In reaction to three deaths caused by the operation and blamed on the informant, the village leadership sentenced the collaborator to death at the hands of his own family. Reluctantly, the sentence was carried out. Shadid admitted he is still haunted by the incident today.
Shadid’s lecture centered mainly around the small village of Thuluyah, a place he describes in his book, Night Draws Near, as “a lush, oasis-like town about a ninety-minute drive north from Baghdad.” Thuluyah was the place where the informant brought U.S. troops during Operation Peninsula Strike and the same place where that informant was put to death.
Shadid described the cultural and political changes that the war has brought to the town: ranging from the re-establishment of tribal authority to the rise and fall of insurgent militias. In the lecture, Shadid described the Iraq war as having “wrecked and remade Thuluyah.”
In addition to addressing Wikileaks, Shadid also spoke of journalistic integrity in the face of Iraq’s instability. He acknowledged that journalists paying for sources is something he’s witnessed while in the field.
“I don’t think it’s ethical in any circumstance and I wouldn’t do it,” he said. “But it comes up a lot. I think foreign correspondents, in some ways, have the least rules that they have to play [by] because nobody’s watching them. [Paid sources are] something you can play around with but you’re going to get caught eventually.”
Instead, Shadid emphasized the importance of unpaid sources. He cited a family that allowed him to follow them, without charge, while they searched for what happened to their missing son. Giving Shadid what he described as an “epic” story, they eventually located the son’s grave in Najaf, a holy city in Iraq.
“A lot of people want you to bear witness to their own tragedies,” he said.
Of Lebanese descent, Shadid was born in Oklahoma City. He attended UW-Madison and graduated in 1990 with degrees in journalism and political science. In one of his lighter comments, Shadid “blamed” Wisconsin for an “addiction to the Green Bay Packers” that surfaced during his time in Madison and continued even during his assignments abroad.
In 2002, after being shot while covering fighting in the West Bank at Ramallah, he received the UW journalism school’s Ralph O. Nafziger award. The Nafziger award was followed in 2005 by a Distinguish Alumni Award given by the Wisconsin Alumni Association.
Thursday’s lecture focused on his observations there and how he approached the war as a journalist. Currently, Shadid is working on a book on his family’s ancestral home in Lebanon.