But that clip from On Point, to which I've listened several times, is a poignant reminder of the importance of experienced foreign correspondents for our understanding of the world. Cellphone videos on YouTube can give us the flavor of the Syrian revolt but can't explain who the rebels are, what they want, or what is really going on inside the country. Shadid knew that if you really want to understand the story you must report from the ground.
As a columnist who makes only periodic visits to hot spots, I hugely admire those who still report full time from Kabul, Baghdad, Beirut, and Cairo. Especially these days, when such reporting guarantees exposure to violence.
Shadid was the best of the best. I knew him only in passing - we last met in Cairo in the aftermath of the Tahrir Square revolution. But I was in awe of his grasp of Middle East complexities, his writing talent, and his modesty.
The grandson of Lebanese immigrants, raised in Oklahoma, he spoke fluent Arabic, which gave him unique access and insights into the Arab world and the forces behind the Arab Spring. He had a special talent and empathy for conveying the fears and hopes of ordinary people, in Syria, Libya, Egypt, and most especially in Iraq.
His harrowing descriptions of suffering in post-war Iraq were an antidote to the good-news stories emanating from the Bush White House. That reporting won him his 2004 Pulitzer Prize. His second Pulitzer, in 2010, was awarded for his coverage of Iraqis struggling to cope with the legacy of the war, as U.S. troops were leaving (both prizes were for his work for the Washington Post).
Tellingly, the book that Shadid wrote in 2005 based on his Iraq reportage was titled: Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War.
To get his stories, Shadid repeatedly put himself in great danger. He was shot in the shoulder in 2002 while covering Israeli-Palestinian clashes on the West Bank. He stayed in Baghdad, unembedded, in 2003 during the U.S. invasion, and risked his life again to cover Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 2006. Last year, while covering the fighting in Libya, he was seized, imprisoned, and beaten by Moammar Gadhafi's forces, who he thought at one point were about to kill him.
And yet, Shadid chose to travel surreptitiously to Syria - where journalists are forbidden entry, even as the regime slaughters thousands of civilians. He moved by horseback along smugglers' routes through the mountains from Turkey (and his fatal asthma attack was apparently triggered by a reaction to the horses).
No doubt many who read his obituary will ask, as did the caller to On Point, "Why did he risk it?" In these days of instant media, do we really need a print journalist for the story to be told?
Let me offer an answer. Shadid's goal on this trip was to interview soldiers of the Free Syrian Army, the military defectors who are fighting the regime's forces. Right now, there is minimal information available about the strength and organization of these rebel soldiers, or their beliefs. As the administration and Congress debate whether to arm the rebels, the U.S. public, and its government, know precious little about who they are.
Shadid, the quintessential foreign correspondent, wanted to find the answers, both to satisfy himself and to inform his readers. As On Point host Tom Ashbrook told his dubious caller, in reference to Shadid's scary experiences in Libya: "We would know much less if there were not reporters there. Big decisions are being made about the extent of American and other involvement in this country."
The same words could be applied to our knowledge of Syria and the rest of the Middle East, not to mention Pakistan and Afghanistan. Without foreign correspondents on the ground, American citizens - and even U.S. officials - are often in the dark.
Sadly, as Shadid also knew, the number of foreign news bureaus is rapidly shrinking, as struggling U.S. newspapers cut staff and budgets to meet the economic squeeze. "There are so few people who do it these days," Shadid told another NPR talk show in December, referring to foreign correspondents with the skills and experience to piece together important stories.
Neither citizen journalists nor freelancers can fill that gap.
So I understand why Shadid took the risks he did, even though the tragedy of his death removes one of the best interpreters we had of Mideast turmoil. Shadid was correct that what he did was important and worthwhile - I'd say vital. Yet, to be honest, I wish he had not made this trip.
E-mail Trudy Rubin at firstname.lastname@example.org.