By Anthony Settipani
The death of James Foley at the hands of ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), brought a brutal end to a life dedicated to capturing and conveying the realities of a world in conflict. Foley was, as President Obama remarked in his honor, “a journalist, a son, a brother and a friend.” He was also a Wildcat, a member of Northwestern’s family, and a man who burned a singular energy in the service of doing what he thought was right.
“Jim endures for us,” wrote Medill Dean Bradley Hamm in a statement on the school’s website, “as a beacon reminding us of the risks implicit in shedding light where inhumanity can take hold.” His friends and family remember him as a fearless and thoughtful advocate of anyone who needed an ear, a hand or a voice. His life and work live on in the stories that he told, and the lives that he touched.
Jim Foley started his journalism career in the winter of 2007, getting his first taste of Medill’s graduate program with Stephan Garnett and Noah Isackson’s Journalism Methods course. He began in the dead of winter.
“We like to call it ‘boot camp,’” said Garnett. “It’s where they learn the basics of journalism, and then actually put it into practice in the second half of the class.” Garnett didn’t aim to soften the class for his students, instead striving to convey to them the perils and hardships of the profession as best he could.
“I tell them that this class is going to be a test of how well they’re gonna function as journalists,” he said. “And I use an analogy, I say that basically I’m gonna grab you by the scruff of your neck and throw you in that lake out there, and see if you can swim to the other side of it. And some of you will swim, and some of you will sink.”
The course’s daily newsroom model pushed students to first come up with stories, then to write them quickly and efficiently. To get to know Chicago, every student chose a neighborhood to cover throughout the quarter.
“For us, we all kind of go into different tracks, and take courses and electives differently,” said Peter Holderness, Foley’s classmate that first quarter. “Because then what we have in common is we all start in this methods course. So while there might be a hundred people in the cohort, the twelve or fifteen people that you spend that first quarter with are really your introduction to the professional world of reporting, and those are the people that you’re gonna stay in touch with the most.”
Rachel Zahorsky, another classmate who quickly went on to become friends with Foley, called the class “nerve-wracking.”
“Medill’s a really good school,” she explained. “You paid a lot of money to be there, and this is it. College is over. You want to make a career as a journalist.” With strenuous assignments and the ever-looming “Medill F,” sometimes that could seem a daunting challenge.
“You’re learning a whole new trade, and a whole new skill, and there’s so much uncertainty,” she said. “And finally, you’re also very excited to be there, because you’re gonna spend the whole year, you know, living your dream. I mean, training to be a journalist. What could be more awesome than that?”
“I’m not trying to scare them,” said Garnett, “although later on some tell me they were terrified. But what I basically do is I just give them the reality of this profession. I tell them that you must realize that journalists can sometimes get hurt, or killed on the job, that when something terrible happens and everybody is running away from it, the journalists are running to it.”
“Jim came up to me after that class and shook my hand and said, ‘I think I’m really gonna enjoy this class.’”
James Foley was a tall man, easily clearing six feet.
“I remember the first thing I thought was, ‘What a damn good-looking guy,” said Garnett. “Very handsome, but he wasn’t impressed with it. Which I found impressive.” Garnett said that his appreciation of Foley’s character and professionalism only grew throughout the class, as Foley pitched idea after idea for stories to cover in Chicago.
Foley’s classmates shared that appreciation.
“He just never had the attitude that he was so much better, or that he was so great, or that he was this hotshot reporter,” said Zahorsky. “He just did his job, and he did it really well.”
But more than that, Foley’s classmates remembered him as someone who cared, a quiet and calming presence in the sometimes-frantic newsroom. Some of it likely came simply from age.
“I was just in my 30’s,” recalled Holderness, “and so was Jim, which made us both a little bit older than some of the other students there. And so we both had already done some things in our life, and went to journalism a little bit later.”
Before attending Medill, Foley studied history at Marquette University in Milwaukee. After college, he moved on to a career in teaching.
“He taught inmates at Cook County Jail,” recalled Garnett, referring to the Cook County Sheriff’s Office program where Foley taught language arts. “I mean, I teach at Medill. I teach some of the brightest, sharpest, classiest people out there. I can’t imagine what it’s like to teach at Cook County Jail. But Jim did it.“
Foley also taught in Phoenix with Teach for America, and in college he volunteered at a local school in Milwaukee. Eventually, his writing and a strong desire for social justice led him to Medill, where he hoped to tell the stories of those who couldn’t on their own.
“He had a passion for creative writing,” recalled Jeremy Gantz, a friend of Foley since their first quarter in Garnett’s class. That fall, he and Foley and two other classmates would live together in Washington, D.C., during their quarter spent studying in the nation’s capital.
“He was really into hip-hop,” said Gantz, “like socially conscious hip-hop. I remember him, when we were living in DC, he would write raps. He had notebooks, that was something I really remembered about him. He would scrawl down ideas.”
Foley’s friends described him as thoughtful, engaged with the world around him, and constantly seeking a way to change the things he thought were wrong. He chose to both live and report in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood during his first quarter at Medill, a place where others in his position might have felt ill at ease.
“This was a man who championed the underdog,” recalled Garnett. “For instance, one of the stories that he did, along with a partner in Journalism Methods, was a story about a playground that was proposed to be built right next door to a factory that had a list of serious EPA violations.” Garnett said that the parents who lived nearby were upset and worried for their children, but lacked the influence and social standing to make a difference.
“Jim and his partner went in and did that story. They talked to the EPA and found out what those violations were, and talked to the parents, and they even got into the plant and talked to the plant manager.”
It was hard to miss Foley’s sense of social justice, and he wasn’t afraid of letting people know what he thought.
“He actually started castigating the manager of this plant, and telling him, you know, ‘Do you realize that what you’re doing is putting the people in this community at risk?’” Garnett said that it was most likely unprofessional, but didn’t seem to care.
“That was Jim. He spoke his mind. He felt that this was wrong, and he was gonna let this guy know it. Even if it jeopardized this interview. That’s just the way he was, you know, he was fearless. Both in what he did and in what he said.”
Foley’s thoughts began to turn to war-related reporting after a class he took in Washington, D.C., on covering conflicts.
“I think it was probably our favorite class in D.C., because it was such a close-up look,” said Gantz, recalling the course’s special, insider feel. “We heard directly from a number of national security professionals, and people who cover the military for a living, people who really know how it works. I know we both felt really lucky to have that.”
“We actually took this conflict zone training class, sort of a simulation and experience on a former farm in Virginia.” Gantz said he saw the wheels start to turn in Foley’s head, and knew that his friend was thinking about making a career out of what they had learned there.
Not long after receiving his degree, Foley embedded with the U.S. Army, where he worked to bring stories from the front lines back to the audience he knew in America.
“He would send me, occasionally, things that he’d done,” said Garnett, “and I mean, the guy was in his flak jacket and his helmet, and he was right there with the troops dodging bullets. And I would comment on how dangerous this was, and he said ‘Yeah, well that’s where the story is.’”
Many of Foley’s classmates also continued to follow his work, after graduation.
“I really stayed more in touch with him when he embedded with soldiers and when he started blogging,” said Holderness, who now works at the Chicago Sun-Times. Rachel Zahorsky also closely followed Foley’s career, remembering the impression that he made on her during the program.
“Any time he posted something to his blog, or any time there was something about him in the news, I definitely always read it, followed up on it, cared about what was going on in a different way,” she said. “And I think most of our classmates did as well.”
“You just always want to cheer on someone you think is doing something amazing,” she said.
In April of 2011, Foley was captured and imprisoned for 44 days by Libyan forces. After his release he returned to the United States, where he spoke on Medill’s campus and started to reconnect with friends and family, but he always felt a pull to return to the wars.
“He faced this dilemma,” remembered Gantz. “He was offered this job, an editing job, by GlobalPost, and he wasn’t sure if he wanted to take it. And I very emphatically told him that he should take the job. He should not go back abroad, he needs to sort of process everything that had happened, get some distance, be with his family. And not rush back abroad into Libya.”
His friends believed that much of his desire to return stemmed from the death of Anton Hammerl, the South African photographer who died reporting alongside Foley in Libya. But they also suspected that Foley’s reporting overseas had touched on something fundamental to who he was, and kindled a passion that would never burn out in captivity.
“So when he was offered the job, you know, there must be a part of him that was like ‘You know it’s so hard to get a real staff job. It’s safe. I should really take this.’ But then,” Gantz said, “there was a part of him that didn’t want to do that. And I told him what I thought, and he did take the job. But he didn’t have it for that long.” One of the last times that Foley’s friends would see him was at Gantz’ wedding.
“ Jeremy had a lovely gathering in Maine, and I think we kind of didn’t expect that Jim would make it. We all knew that he was a little bit shell-shocked. But Jim showed up, looking a little bit out of his element, but overjoyed to be around friends and family.”
To many, however, it was evident from the start that Foley simply had to go back to Libya.
“I was worried,” said Garnett. “And I told him the last time I saw him that I was worried. I remember his response. ‘I’ll try real hard to spare you a heart attack.’” In his talk at Medill, Foley described his experience while embedded with the Army, and his decision to leave the protection of his U.S. base.
“Do I really know the Iraqi people?” he wondered. “Do I really know an Afghan? Well, I know an Afghan who’s a translator for the U.S. Army, feeding questions that I’m asking to a local Afghan.” Like that very first class in Medill, Foley just had to know who the real people were.
“So the idea of the Libyan revolution is journalists literally embedding with rebels. And that’s essentially what we did.” Even after his capture and release, he still felt the urge to return.
“There was no doubt, no hesitation,” said Zahorsky. “That was his job. He truly believed in telling those stories, and making people care. He connected with people, and cared about people, but he also made others care too.” Foley was calm, grounded, but also a restless participant in what he considered important to the world.
“He was not going to be satisfied, I think, staying behind a desk and helping to edit copy while other people were reporting,” said Holderness. “I think he returned, and just was never able to settle in to a life that wasn’t life or death all the time. He knew that people were experiencing that, and he knew that we weren’t getting that story, as an American audience, and I think that he felt compelled.”
Holderness reflected that it was one of the great ironies of the media world, that it needs reporters like Foley now more than ever, yet the number of outlets with the resources to protect and pay them grows smaller all the time.
“So Jim is one of those intrepid souls who sent himself out into the world and those dangerous places where he thought that important things were happening,” he said. “I will always remember him as someone who made easy connections with people, big smiles, and a goofy laugh. A wild passion for the world that you could sense within his eyes and sort of feel with his enthusiasm. When Jim went for it, he went all the way. And I think that’s a reasonable way to remember him.”