Morning Edition
9:04 am
Wed August 20, 2014

GlobalPost's Charles Sennott On James Foley

Journalist James Foley
Credit freejamesfoley.org

UPDATE: James Foley's death was confirmed by the U.S. government shortly after Charles Sennott was interviewed.

On Tuesday evening, we learned of the reported execution of journalist James Foley at the hands of Islamic extremists.

Foley, 40, was abducted in Syria in November of 2012, where he had traveled to report on the escalating violence for GlobalPost. His parents, John and Diane Foley, of Rochester, NH, publicly revealed his abduction two months after he had been kidnapped, and since then they had been advocating and praying for his safe return.

GlobalPost co-founder and WGBH News contributor Charles Sennott joined WGBH's Morning Edition. Listen to the full interview above, or read a transcript of his comments below.

Charles Sennott on GlobalPost's darkest day:

Jim Foley was really part of our family at Global Post. We got to know him so well over the years and, of course, ever since he was picked up in Syria two years ago on Thanksgiving day, we have been worried sick. Our whole team has done everything it could do to try to get as much information as we could on those two years and hold onto the hope that we would get him home safely.

It's really our saddest day and our hearts really go out to the Foley family, go out in every way possible, go out in every tangible way we can help, because the Foleys are amazing. The Foley family in New Hampshire has been so strong. John and Diane, his parents, are very faithful people. His siblings are so strong. What we saw in that video is so dark. It's really unfathomable darkness to think a life as bright as Jim Foley's could have ended that way.

I admire in particular the faith of the Foleys, in the sense of their Catholic faith, but also in their faith in their son, and their faith in his work — in their unquestioning faith and respect for his passion to do that work, as dangerous as it was. I think all of us who have colleagues, or who have done reporting ourselves on the front lines, you're constantly analyzing: 'Is this worth it?' And the biggest part of that analysis, of course, is your safety and your family, and how your family will feel about this. I really, as someone who's done this work for a long time, I deeply admire everything about the Foley family, and the way they've handled this terrible, terrible, news.

On the authenticity of the video:

The CEO of GlobalPost, Phil Balboni, has worked tirelessly, to meticulously gather every fact possible on this over two years. I mean, he has been unswervingly dedicated to gathering precise information, keeping track — information that we've never released at the request of the family, and at the request of the government, and in the agreement that it was in the best interest of trying to save lives, we couldn't release that information.

But I think yesterday, at GlobalPost in the headquarters, you saw Phil Balboni, and you saw the whole editorial team focusing on what we do, which is trying to get facts — and the facts are very few right now. We know this video is there. We've watched it, we've watched it very carefully. AP is quoting two U.S. officials confirming that's Foley. It certainly would be our confirmation that that's Foley.

The family has also posted a note, which seems to accept this very terrible fact, but, that said, we are smart to wait for an authentication of this video to be public from the federal government. President Obama will speak to this today, we understand, and I think we need to do what a good news organization does right now, which is wait, gather the facts as best we can, and proceed from there.

On Foley's courage and risk-taking:

Jim had an amazing passion. He was courageous, he was fearless, and at times that caused great worry, concern and anguish for his editors. Foley took risks all over — in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and definitely in Libya, where he was captured, and he was held for 45 days, and eventually released. That changed him. That changed his sense of the calculus of risk, but it didn't change his passion for what he wanted to do.

He wrote a very meaningful essay for our field guide, which is called "Ground Truth." And the field guide really brought out something in Jim which articulated why he does this, and it's a powerful statement, and something to remember in an age in which we often bash the media. And it is that he felt his work was meaningful, and important, and it was about the most important things happening in the world. And that to do that right, you had to be out there on the front lines. You had to be on the ground, and you had to gather what we call 'ground truth.' And Jim was a practitioner of ground truth in an extraordinary way, and was someone who we deeply admired at GlobalPost, and I think all of us feared this outcome, but we just had been praying for so long that it wouldn't happen.

On whether recent U.S. airstrikes against ISIS worried GlobalPost:

Being very mindful and careful of the facts we can release and facts that we can't, it's safe to say the reporting we've done on GlobalPost tells that story as best we can, and right now that is, essentially, that over two years there was a lot of investigation with law enforcement officials, with private investigators, with every source we could find, including colleagues, journalists on the ground who would provide bits of information.

It's our sense that over those two years we eventually came to realize that it was Islamic extremists who held him, And as soon as that happened, it began to set in that, yes, his life could be taken. He was certainly viewed asa bargaining chip, and certainly that calculus of how they may treat him changed as U.S. forces began air strikes in Iraq.

So all of this has just consumed GlobalPost, but at the end of the day, our focus right now is on the family, and our thoughts and prayers are on this amazing clan, the Foleys of New Hampshire. They're really impressive in the way they keep the faith, so I would just say our thoughts are with them.

On a potential chilling effect for other journalists:

I think the chilling effect is less important than the sober recognition of how important this work is, and that those who do it, and take those risks, are to be admired.

We live in a very cynical time. We live in a snarky, digital world in which everyone wants to talk about how bad the media is, from the left and the right. And when I hear that I get frustrated, because I know there are these people out there who work with us every day at Global Post and at Ground Truth who take these kind of risks because they really care about what they do, which is journalism, which is being there to bring home the story. And I hope we won't forget that there are journalists out there who make these sacrifices and these risks and not forget that that is courageous, and very important work.

Charles Sennott also spoke about James Foley on Greater Boston:

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