On Thanksgiving 2012, the Foley family sat down at their dinner table in New Hampshire to a traditional meal of turkey, mashed potatoes and the usual holiday conversations about jobs and life.
Yet Diane Foley, the matriarch of the family, couldn’t help but feel uneasy. Through all of the laughter and familial harmony, she couldn’t get one thought out of her mind: her fifth and oldest son, James Foley, had yet to call the house.
And he always managed to call the family to wish them happy holidays.
James, or “Jim” as his friends and colleagues called him, had left an internet cafe earlier that day with his translator, John Cantlie, in northwestern Syria. They had just uploaded their coverage on the ongoing Syrian Civil War to their respective employers and were on their way to the Turkish border to meet up with Nicole Tung, a friend and photojournalist.
Jim traveled to Syria a month earlier to cover the Syrian uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s government regime. He had previously been reporting on the Libyan Civil War in 2011 when he was abducted by government forces and held for 44 days. After his return, his family was dismayed when he said he was going back. They even threatened to burn his passport to prevent him from returning to the Middle East, but they couldn’t stop the 38-year-old freelance journalist. He felt the need to report on human rights issues. He needed to cover the destruction of innocent people in times of war.
He needed closure.
As the day progressed, the family went along with celebrating the holiday. Diane kept her composure as she always had and discussed what was going on in everyone’s lives. Day turned to night, and as Diane kept waiting to hear the phone ring, she and the rest of the family became increasingly disheartened. The first time Jim was kidnapped, a writer for the New York Times witnessed his capture by pro-Gaddafi forces and confirmed this with the Foleys. Updates about their son were bountiful and constant.
But this time was different. Just silence. No phone call. Nothing.
As the night came to a close, and the family hadn’t heard anything from their son, a sense of dread engulfed their holiday festivities. His younger brother, Michael, thought if he had been taken, the family would simply go through 50 to 100 days of hell to get him back, but they would eventually, someway or somehow, get him back. Just like last time.
It wouldn’t be that easy.
For the next three weeks after Jim was taken in 2012, only rumors and dead ends circulated about his whereabouts. Diane and the rest of the Foleys could only sit and speculate.
“We were told not to tell anyone he was captured, and we chose to go to the media about two months into his captivity because we had no idea where he was,” Diane said.
Phil Balboni, the former CEO of GlobalPost who employed Jim as a freelance reporter, was sitting in his home around noon days after Thanksgiving in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when he found out about his employee’s disappearance. Without hesitation, Balboni picked up the phone and immediately enlisted the help of Kroll Inc., a private security firm who had aided in the rescue of Jim from Libyan detention in 2011.
“There’s very few people who have had experience with this in media,” Balboni said. “I’m the CEO of GlobalPost, I was responsible for everything, and there was no one that could do this job but me, so I took it on.”
After a year, both the Foleys and GlobalPost started receiving emails from the terror group that would eventually call themselves the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant requesting a ransom of $132 million (100 million euros) for Jim’s release. However, due to American foreign policy that believes “democracies must never give in to violence, and terrorists must never be rewarded for using it,” according to a Foreign Affairs article, the American government refused to talk to the group directly.
“We couldn’t believe it happened a second time,” Diane said of his kidnapping. “You feel very powerless and rather terrorized because you don’t know what to do.”
The family tried many methods to find and bring Jim back. According to Balboni, GlobalPost spent millions in their hiring of Kroll Inc., and the Foley family raised over $1 million to pay the kidnappers the ransom. Both instances of Jim’s abductions are examples of why working as a freelancer in the Middle East is increasingly hazardous for media professionals.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) Impunity Index, there have been 1,260 journalists killed since 1992. Syria is ranked as the second-worst country for journalist impunity, or where individuals harm or murder journalists without any consequence. Additionally, two other countries were categorized along with Syria as the areas with the highest death count of journalists: Iraq (3) and Pakistan (7). Out of the 74 journalists killed in 2012, the year Jim was kidnapped a second time, 37 of those deaths occurred in Syria, totaling 50 percent of the world’s journalist impunity that year.
Freelance journalists face much greater danger than journalists working for a large media outlet, according to a 2014 NBC News report that shows nearly two-thirds of journalists killed in 2013 during combat or crossfire were freelancers.
“In 2009, I left NBC News to work as a freelancer in Iraq and Afghanistan…and suddenly I realized how exposed I was and how exposed these freelancers were around the globe that I had worked around all those years, ” said Mike Boettcher, a venerable broadcast journalist and one of the first live reporters for CNN who is now a visiting professor at the University of Oklahoma. “I really didn’t get it.”
When Jim traveled back to Syria a second time, all that really protected him from incoming gunfire and threats against his life were his combat helmet and a small, khaki tactical vest. In several of his videos that were broadcasted by his employer, the Boston-based GlobalPost, Jim videos bombs going off right above him, rocking the foundations of buildings, or rebels shooting rocket propelled grenades at their enemy. Jim was as vulnerable as the people he was covering.
More than two years after Jim was taken, his family and the rest of the world saw his face for the first time as he was broadcast on every major news network.
Aug. 19, 2014. A video titled “A Message to America” was posted on YouTube. The video opens with President Obama announcing airstrikes in Iraq. The video then cuts to a skinny, pale Jim with his head shaven, kneeling in the desert and clad in a flowy, orange jumpsuit. Beside him stands a man completely covered in black jihadi robes. Jim reads from a script, and after the masked man justifies the Islamic State’s actions, the terrorist wields a knife.
The militant walks quickly behind Jim and puts his left hand on his forehead. Jim’s lower jaw becomes tense and veins jut out from his neck.
The militant then puts the gleaming blade to Jim’s neck.
The video of the murder was broadcast internationally and shown by almost every major media outlet in the world. Jim was the first American to be killed by ISIS. Following Jim’s death, the terrorist known as “Jihadi John” showed an Israeli-American named Steven Sotloff in a similar orange jumpsuit. Jihadi John threatened to behead Sotloff if more airstrikes occurred.
On Sept. 2, 2014, Jihadi John followed through with his threat to Sotloff in yet another circulated video. Steven and Jim were two of the 61 journalists killed around the world in 2014, and two of the 17 killed in Syria, the country with the highest number of journalist deaths in the world according to CPJ.
After Aug. 19, 2014, Diane, John and the rest of the family were broadcast around the world as they processed the news of their son’s death. Media professionals started to criticize media organizations who used freelance journalists but didn’t provide them with sufficient protection in conflict areas.
“There are two key issues. One is: should a freelance journalist go to a conflict area without proper training, equipment, or support?” Balboni said, “And the answer is ‘no.’ Second, should a news organization accept the work of a freelancer who is in a conflict zone without ascertaining that the previous criteria have been met? And the answer to that is definitely ‘no.’”
The landscape of freelance journalism came under great debate after the video of Jim surfaced, and GlobalPost was a media outlet that led the discussion by discontinuing the acceptance of freelance coverage from conflict zones. However, they stated they would continue to send foreign correspondents, or staff employees who had contracts with the company, to conflict areas. Agence France-Presse, a Parisian news agency that Jim had freelanced for, released a statement saying they would not accept work from freelance journalists “who travel to place where we do not venture,” according to an article by the Huffington Post.
Inevitably, after Jim’s passing, people started to question who Jim was as a journalist and a person. The world turned to Diane for answers.
The Foley house was one of busyness and motion while Jim was growing up. Although he was born in Evanston, Illinois, the Foley family moved to the quiet, tiny town of Wolfeboro, New Hampshire to raise their five children, of which Jim was the oldest. Diane recalls Jim’s affection toward others starting at an early age.
“Very curious,” Diane said while reminiscing about his youth, “I think that’s why he became interested in journalism because he loved to meet people and was a very friendly guy. He just liked people.”
His family and peers seem to all agree on Jim’s sense of purpose in life: to tell the story of the underreported. His mother remembers his passion for people beginning in college, as he worked in the inner city of Phoenix, Massachusetts and a prison in Illinois, working for Teach For America, a program that employs recent college graduates to teach in public schools. Jim finally found his calling with journalism in 2008 while working to rebuild infrastructure in Baghdad for the USAID-funded “Tatweer Project.” Two years later, in 2010, he would apply for military embed-journalist accommodation status in Afghanistan, kicking off his career as a freelance reporter.
“Jim became very passionate about what the people in the Middle East were yearning for,” Diane said. “When you are an independent journalist, you live among the people…and he became very close friends with a lot of people in the country and could feel their yearning for freedom.”
The idea of exposing the truth and telling the stories no one else was telling drove Jim to the Middle East, where he would go on to report on the stories of rebels in both the Libyan and Syrian civil wars.
“He had caught the war correspondent disease,” Balboni said of Jim’s motivation. “He felt that that’s where he wanted to be, that’s where he need to be and these are the stories he wanted to tell.”
Jim was famously quoted saying, “If I don’t have the moral courage to challenge authority, we don’t have journalism.” He took this to heart as he lived with the people of Libya and Syria, made friends and gave a voice to the voiceless.
Through Jim’s Syrian conflict coverage, he strongly advocated for the common people by not only covering the rebels’ fight against the al-Assad regime, but also the conditions that the Syrian people lived in. One month in 2012, Jim spent his days in a hospital covering the laborious, frantic work of doctors who were extremely short on supplies. Jim and Tung, a photojournalist who Jim had been working with for several months, raised enough money to buy a shabby van converted to an ambulance for the hospital, which traveled across Europe and eventually arrived in Syria.
His reputation became something of Middle East folklore, according to Boettcher and the documentary “Jim: The James Foley Story.” His signature aviator-glasses and lanky stature were key in describing what many referred to as a “war hero.”
When the family saw the video of Jim’s death, they were obviously devastated. Over time, however, the family refused to allow Jim’s sense of purpose be forgotten. Particularly, Diane’s grief transformed into something unexpected.
October 25, 2017. Diane, dressed in a silky, vibrant-orange dress, sits elegantly and upright in a panel discussion with Boettcher and author Michael Scott Moore at the University of Oklahoma’s Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication. Directly behind her, a video describing Jim’s principal ethical code, “moral courage,” plays. The video includes Jim’s own frontline work and testimonies from his peers. Diane physically struggles to turn and see the screen directly behind her, so she remains with her back turned away from the video as it plays. At the sound of Jim’s voice, Diane unconsciously clasps her hands. Her posture becomes more rigid and her eyes stare at the floor. She intently listens to her son’s voice, perhaps hoping he was with her on stage, discussing the values he fiercely defended. Although her gaze has a miniscule trace of pain, other attributes are apparently visible: strength, endurance and warmth.
The panel discussion is part of Boettcher and Professor John Schmeltzer’s presidential dream course “Journalism Under Siege.” The class features weekly speakers who discuss the threats journalists encounter while working in the field.
Diane was invited to speak about Jim’s frontline experiences and the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, which supports protection of journalists and freedom for international hostages. Back in New Hampshire, after Jim’s death in 2014, Diane refused to let her son’s legacy be forgotten and decided to create a foundation that advocates for “the safe return of all Americans detained abroad” as well as the protection of freelance journalists and safety education for media professionals, according to the foundation’s website.
“I was a nurse practitioner before all this happened. It’s definitely changed what I’ve done with my life,” Diane said. “It’s been very challenging to run a nonprofit because I don’t have a business background.”
“Diane is an extremely strong individual,” Balboni said. “This is one of those things that comes along once in a lifetime, and how you deal with it can define who you are and how you feel about yourself.”
Jim’s legacy lives on not just through Diane. Many organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and The GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit media organization that specializes in global crises, dedicated annual fellowships to Jim following his death. Jahd Khalil, a freelance journalist working out of Cairo, won the GroundTruth 2016 Middle East Fellowship and reminisced about how the fellowship’s dedication affected his work and Jim’s legacy.
“It underlined how there should be diligence and planning at every step of reporting,” Khalil said. “Jim Foley’s biggest legacy is being carried on by his parents and the Foley Foundation – they are working to make sure that journalism is safer and that editors are aware of the situation that freelancers are put in (or sometimes put themselves in).”
Additionally, Ramy Ghaly, the winner of CPJ’s 2015 James W. Foley Fellowship, shared his thoughts on what Jim’s legacy personally meant to him.
“Jim’s legacy is a constant reminder of the ongoing risks that journalists face as part of their profession. And because of this, I believe that assistance and support for journalists is as crucial as free speech itself.”
Both of these young media professionals share crucial common ground: journalists covering the frontline in conflict areas undoubtedly face daily peril. Diane wishes to bring this to the forefront of journalism ethics and safety discussions through the expansion of the the foundation and nationwide safety training for beginning and veteran journalists.
When Diane speaks about her son, she does so without remorse. A swelling pride and confidence accompanies every word describing Jim. Although she’ll always miss his lanky figure, his gap-tooth grin and his genuine kindness towards other human beings, she refuses to allow his story go untold.
“It makes me feel good,” Diane said, “and it’s been healing in many ways to feel like I can do something good. That Jim’s life wasn’t sacrificed for nothing.”