James Foley

Frontline Journalism – Telling the Story, No Matter the Cost

A Biography of Journalist James Foley

Sara Christiansen


In life and in death, James Wright Foley served as the voice of the voiceless – finally surrendering his life as he lived it – telling a story that will never be forgotten. While Foley’s death came as a shock to the world, his life – and the cause that he worked for – is a tale worth telling.

“I believe frontline journalism is important,” Foley said. “Without these photos and videos – first-hand experience – you can’t really tell the world how bad it might be.”

James Foley
James in Aleppo, Syria (Photo Credit: Nicole Tung)

Born the eldest son of Diane and John Foley in Rochester, New Hampshire, Foley graduated from Marquette University in 1996, with a bachelor’s degree in history.   Following graduation, he took the entrance exam to attend law school. Although he tested well, he decided to focus on helping others and spent the next four years working in the Teach for America program, educating inner city youth in Phoenix, Arizona.

Determined to combine his love of the written language with his desire to help others, Foley returned to school and completed his M.F.A. in writing at the University of Massachusetts. While in MA, Foley taught GED classes to unwed mothers and language arts at the Cook County sheriff’s boot camp, in Chicago, IL.

Foley’s passion went deeper than teaching or preventing recidivism; he seemed determined to make a difference in the world – with everyone and everything his hands could possibly touch.

“Jim dedicated his life to serving others and effecting change,” Sheriff Tom Dart said in a statement. “We thank him…for all he did to shine a light on the injustices and suffering in the world.”

“He had started writing fiction when at UMass,” Foley’s mother said in an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review in 2013, “but afterward, the more he worked with the disadvantaged in Phoenix and Chicago, which he also was passionate about, he realized that the stories he wanted to tell were real stories – stories about people’s lives – and he saw journalism as a vehicle for talking about what’s really happening in the world.”

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Nicole Tung and James Foley in Syria. (Photo Credit: Nicole Tung)

Determined to learn the skills needed to turn his dream of becoming a journalist into reality, Foley enrolled in the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, at age 35, and seemed immediately drawn to the field of combat reporting.

Professor Stephan Garnett recalled how he explained the dangers of international reporting to his students on the first day of class in 2007.

“You can get hurt doing this job. You can get killed doing this job. And you’d better learn to think on your feet,” Garnett explained.

“Jim came up to me afterward and said, ‘I think I’m going to like this class,’ ” Garnett recalled. “He was a very courageous guy, and he didn’t scare easily.”

Following graduation, Foley’s courage propelled him across the globe and straight into the field of combat reporting. Not one to shy away from a challenge, Foley began his career where others feared to tread – freelancing for GlobalPost in the war-torn extremes of the Middle East. Foley sought out this post as a means of combining his love of writing with his compassion for the less fortunate. His career spanned the regions of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria – the most dangerous and important assignments where impartial reporting was paramount. It was during his time in Iraq that Foley first met U.S. Army Sergeant John Bentley – a military journalist who helped facilitate the embedding of civilian journalists on Army missions.

Bentley described Foley as a friend – someone he highly respected.

“Jim was trying to get better at what he was doing,” Bentley explained. “He had already done some work with military units when I met him. Jim made a choice to do this type of thing. [Freelancers] have to take a lot of tougher assignments; they have to prove themselves a little bit more.”

“Jim was willing to take what he could get and make something out of it,” Bentley recalled. “He was like, ‘I’ll come. I’ll go. I’ll do it.’”

“Jim did what I did,” Bentley said. “He came to the military; we told him we were going on missions; he connected with people. His personality shone through in his writing. Not a lot of people will come and do what [combat] journalists do. They don’t have to wear the same gear – just walking around for hours at a time is a challenge. They wear their helmets, their jackets, carry their cameras. Jim fit right in.”

Foley and Bentley met again – in Afghanistan in 2010 – after Foley reached out to Bentley to help him attach to a mission into the Kunar Province. Bentley said the meeting was as if no time had passed between them. The two were much more than fellow journalists – they were friends.

“Jim was an extremely likable guy,” Bentley said.

On April 5, 2011, Foley’s friendships would be challenged, as he encountered his first experience at being held in captivity. He was in Libya, during the Muammar Gaddafi uprising when he and two colleagues were captured by Libyan forces loyal to Gaddafi. In addition to experiencing the murder of a fellow journalist – Anton Hemmerl – Foley described the impact of being fired upon by enemy forces, in a videotaped interview with the Chicago Tribune.

“Firing became very heavy and seemed accurate in our direction,” Foley began. “I quickly realized – no, this isn’t crossfire -this is them firing at us, directly. Not long after that, I heard Anton Hemmerl, the South African photographer, who was sort of in front by about 10 or 20 meters, shouting, ‘Help! Help!’

“I yelled, ‘Anton, are you okay?’

“He responded, ‘No.’ Another barrage of bullets.

“And I said, ‘Anton!’ He didn’t respond after that.

“You know, the bullets were still coming closer. These soldiers were in fact, out of their vehicles, shooting at us. So, it was kind of an instinctive, a gut-feeling, either you get up, and hold your hands up, and you surrender, or maybe you get shot down like Anton was.

“So I just got up. I sort of ran forward with my hands up, yelling ‘Sahafa! Sahafa! Journalist! Journalist!’

“Before they got to me, I saw Anton, lying on the ground, bleeding out heavily, motionless. Something inside you tells you, he was dead.

3“The soldiers came up to me – struck me with the butt of an AK – several times. My helmet was knocked off. I think I was punched. And then I saw them dragging Manu [Brabo] and Clare [Gillis], off the ground, and you know, striking them in a similar manner.”

Foley described being fearful in this encounter, yet he stayed strong in his faith during the 44 days he and two fellow journalists were held in captivity with 10 political prisoners in a 12 by 15 foot cell. Ever the eternal teacher, Foley worked to keep spirits upbeat by keeping everyone focused on normalcy and reason.

“Jim [saw] the good in nearly everything and everyone,” Gillis wrote in an op-ed for Syria Deeply. “He [was] a master motivator.”

“Jim told me when to duck and when to run,” Gillis continued. “If he had a sandwich, he’d offer me half; if down to one cigarette, he’d pass it back and forth. He saved my life twice before I’d known him a full month.”

“We shared a cell for two and a half weeks,” Gillis explained, “and every day he came up with lists for us to talk through. Top 10 movies. Favorite books. The fall of the Roman Empire and the rebirth of Western civilization. Which famous person would you most like to meet? What’s your life story? How does war change you? How can we be better people when we get out of here?”

Following a tremendous push by family, friends and colleagues to secure the group’s freedom, Gillis and Foley were eventually released on day 45 of their confinement. Post-release, the pair continued to work together in a temporary safe house, where Foley’s focus remained.

“We’ve got paper, pens, nicotine and caffeine,” Foley told Gillis. “There’s no excuse not to be writing all this down.”

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James Foley in Aleppo, Syria (Photo Credit: Nicole Tung)

In a videotaped recording with Medill journalism students following his return to the states, Foley explained how his faith kept him strong during his captivity.

“Being with people and praying with people – that’s the only thing that mattered,” Foley said. “You’re completely humbled … completely powerless. All you can do is pray to whatever you believe. And pray with people.”

During another interview at Marquette University, Foley further elaborated on how his faith kept him strong during the ordeal. Recalling how he heard a knock on the wall of his cell one day, Foley remembered pressing his head to the wall and hearing an American contractor reading from the Bible and asking him to pray with him.

“In a very calm voice, he’d read me Scripture once or twice a day,” recalled Foley. “Then I’d pray to stay strong. I’d pray to soften the hearts of our captors. I’d pray for God to lift the burdens we couldn’t handle. And I’d pray that our moms would know we were OK.”

Back in the states, Foley remained deeply affected by the death of fellow journalist Hammerl. His compulsion to make a difference led Foley to establish a foundation to raise funds for Hammerl’s family. Foley organized an auction at Christie’s; then he wrote friends and colleagues of his effort to – as always – help others.

“Following one of the worst years for photojournalism in recent memory, the community is banding together around this event,” Foley wrote.

In spite of this ordeal and all he’d seen and witnessed, Foley still seemed drawn to the field from which he’d returned. He explained the lure of frontline journalism to a group of students at Marquette University.

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(Photo Credit: Nicole Tung)

“When you see something really violent, it does a strange thing to you,” Foley explained. “It doesn’t always repel you. Sometimes … it draws you closer. Feeling that you survived something. It’s a strange sort of force that you are drawn back to.”

A compulsion to return to help the disadvantaged he’d seen abroad eventually led Foley to return to Syria, despite the efforts of Global Post President Philip Balboni to keep him stateside.

“He was chafing to return,” Balboni explained. Foley didn’t contact the Post until he was already in Syria.

Foley’s father, John, quickly realized he, too, could do nothing to prevent his son from returning to where his heart drew him.

“Before leaving for Syria this last time, Jim said that he finally had found his passion,” recalled Mr. Foley.

“He had made promises,” Mrs. Foley explained. “He was so committed to the people whose suffering he was trying to humanize. He wanted the world to know how people were suffering – particularly the children touched him so much.”

After returning, Foley immediately began working to help those living amongst the perils of war by securing an essential resource. Viewing first-hand the need for social services, Foley organized his fellow freelancers and their respective news agencies to purchase an ambulance for the Dar Al Shifa Hospital in Aleppo, Syria.

One month later, on November 22, 2012, Foley arranged a meeting with fellow journalist, Nicole Tung, at a small border town in Turkey. Foley never arrived.

“I was starting to worry after 6, 7 p.m., when things were very quiet,” Tung said in an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review. “By 10, 11, I knew that something had definitely gone wrong.”

While details surrounding Foley’s kidnapping and nearly two-year captivity with ISIS forces remain mostly unknown, the Pentagon reported a failed attempt to free Foley and other hostages in the months before his execution on August 19, 2014.

Frustrated by efforts surrounding her son’s ordeal, Foley’s mother, Diane, would like Washington to change the way our nation approaches hostage situations with American citizens.

“I pray that our government will be willing to learn from the mistakes that were made,” Mrs. Foley told CNN, “and to acknowledge that there are better ways for American citizens to be treated.”

Mrs. Foley now champions The James W. Foley Legacy Foundation – a charitable organization established in her son’s name that he would certainly be proud of. The Foundation advocates for the safe return of American citizens being held in captivity while promoting the education of disadvantaged youth – both in the U.S. and in the war-torn regions of Syria.

The Foundation also supports the Freelance Journalist Safety Principles and Practices, now signed by 86 global news agencies, including Reuters, the Associated Press, and the Society of Professional Journalists. These principles, adopted in February 2015, advocate for education and awareness as a means for journalists and news agencies to “work together to protect themselves, their profession and their vital role in global society.”

Ever one to improve the well-being of others, Foley would have championed this cause, much as his mother is doing.

“Jim was selfless, and he had the courage and the compassion,” Mrs. Foley stated. “He was compelled to bear witness.”

“[Jim] always acted with kindness and compassion toward others,” said Foley’s friend Paul D’Amours. “I think it’s safe to say that the world would be a better place if there were more people like Jim Foley in it.”

Indeed, we also need more reporters, like Foley, who believe in the importance of frontline journalism – telling the story, no matter the cost.