I didn’t know Steven Sotloff, even though he did some work for Time. But I can recognize who he was from the photo in the Time.com story announcing his death–Sotloff in kevlar helmet, with ill-fitting body armor and the notebook–always the notebook–out there, up front. He wasn’t as dashing as the late and wildly courageous photo-journalist James Foley; somehow, writers never are. I’ve known many stringers like Steve Sotloff and admired almost all of them. They turn up in war zones or other difficult places, looking for adventure and hoping to make a splash…or just tell a compelling story. Many of the brilliant war correspondents whose words and photos have graced Time’s pages started off as stringers. Other stringers can also be academics, with a language skill or a love for the country in question. (Believe me, it is easy to fall in love with Syria and Syrians, or the Yemenis or, in a different era, the Vietnamese.) Still others are local nationals, who risk everything to work for the American media for a variety of reasons–money, truth, patriotism, professional pride.
But they all have one thing in common: they are lovers of freedom, personal freedom, their right to pursue the news. Often, to a fault. And I cannot forget another thing: their generosity. As a visiting bigfoot in dangerous places, I’d always meet these men and women at the hotel bar–or the military helipad, waiting for a lift–and I would ask them questions, and their enthusiasm, and knowledge, and humanity, were extraordinary. Their sense of the situation on the ground was, more often than not, the basis of the not-very-deathless words I’d later write. I’d buy them drinks; they gave me wisdom.
They are the precise opposite of those who now seek to murder them. They were–they are–quite a tribe, a tribe of humanists; I was proud, from time to time, to be considered an auxiliary member. I sometimes fear that the changing nature of the news business has made it more difficult for this tribe to thrive. The public doesn’t like bad news, unless it is phony news, involving Kim Kardashian or some other shameless cipher. The public can’t stand the truth of blood that isn’t carefully orchestrated by Hollywood–and the public can choose the news it consumes. But still the stringers come and risk their lives, all for the love of it…leading with their notebooks and cameras, out there, up front, as Steven Sotloff, whom I never knew, did before he was massacred by animals.