Google Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt and you'll get over 4 million hits. Page after page of links relate breathless gossip about Brangelina, their fervent denials of involvement during Brad's breakup with Jennifer Aniston, wedding plans, Jolie's lesbian lover, and - surprise, surprise - quite a few mentions of the bundle of joy that they recently revealed is on the way.
Google Jill Carroll's name, on the other hand, and you'll get almost 3 million hits. Impressive, given she's not a member of the Hollywood elite. Problem is, only a handful of those links have any relation to the American freelance journalist kidnapped Saturday by al Qaeda en route to an interview with Sunni Arab politician Adnan al-Dulaimi. Only the first, a Jan. 9 post on the blog Boing Boing, reveals an impassioned plea that gives us more than just the facts.
Refine that search to "American freelance journalist kidnapped" and you'll get a respectable 150,000 or so hits, most related to Carroll. But why is it that Jill Carroll is making news now (albeit scant) simply because of her situation, and not because of what she's accomplished as a key correspondent in the Middle East?
Maybe that's the wrong question. Maybe the real one is why we should care about Jill Carroll in the first place. After all, she didn't write the newest Harry Potter book and she didn't save the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. She doesn't speak out against global warming and she didn't get indicted in a lobbying scandal. And, of course, she isn't a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees who recently toured quake-devastated areas in Pakistan with her high-profile beau.
Jill Carroll is a freelance journalist who got kidnapped. Too bad, but so what? In the grand scheme of things, she's a relative unknown, so why does she matter? Well, for starters, for the past few years she's been doing something that most of us wouldn't even contemplate - since 2003, she has been freelancing for the Christian Science Monitor and other media sources from Baghdad, the most dangerous location in the world for journalists (and for anything else even remotely organic).
With the shitstorm filling the blogosphere right now over Alito, trillion-dollar spending in Iraq, the latest Bushism, and illegal wiretapping (yeah, I could go on and on for hours about the regrettable state of our union, but I have to stop somewhere), some might say that Carroll's kidnapping is small potatoes. But if we can devote massive amounts of time, money,and energy to discussing Hollywood gossip, Jill Carroll certainly deserves more than a fleeting mention.
Yet, as of the afternoon of Jan. 13, Carroll had only scored two mentions by HuffPo bloggers, posts that in a matter of hours had disappeared into the vast depths of the blogroll. Angelina and Brad still had a sidebar all their own, however, just as they have all week long, called "The Face of the Sexiest Offspring Alive." Interesting, isn't it, even on our own beloved blog, what kind of news makes the most attractive headline.
It's a mistake to classify Carroll as news just because she was kidnapped - she's newsworthy because of her masterful work in a dangerous climate, as are many other freelance journalists in Iraq who too often go unnoticed because they aren't backed by a major media source.
A former professor of Carroll's from U Mass Amherst said in a recent interview on NPR that Jill had always wanted to be a foreign correspondent. So, when she was laid off from her reporting assistant job with the Wall Street Journal in April 2002, she decided to do it. She cleaned out her savings acount, flew to Jordan, studied the Arab culture and language, and then headed for Iraq. She had no job, no expense account, and no guarantee of safety.
In "Letters from Baghdad: What a Way to Make a Living" from the March 2005 issue of the American Journalism Review, Carroll offers an impassioned, absorbing account of the life of freelance journalists in Iraq that explains in unflinching detail why she does what she does. "There are more lucrative ways to work and faster ways to advance a career. But just as athletes do it for the love of the game, freelancers in Iraq seem to do it for the love of the story," she wrote.
It is no surprise, then, that representatives from the Christian Science Monitor and colleagues in Iraq cite Carroll's persistence in getting the story and her clean, clever, unwavering prose. But most media outlets, rather than focusing on Carroll's contributions as a journalist, instead, focus on what she has become: another victim of violence in Iraq, another tragic story.
The real tragedy here, however, is not her kidnapping, although I hope and pray with every fiber of my being that she comes out of this safely. The tragedy here is the same tragedy that plagues the account of every missing reporter and every soldier and every civilian killed in Iraq: the silencing of another voice. The story that only Jill Carroll can tell us about life in the new Iraq is no longer being told. Her kidnapping means that yet another irreplaceable thread of the human narrative has been lost.
Let's pray that this terrible incident soon comes to its end with Carroll's safe return. Let's pray that it serves as only a temporary lull in her remarkable story. It would be immensely satisfying and unquestionably just to see a capable reporter, who puts telling the story over cronyism and fame, overtake the Woodwards and Millers of this world. Perhaps then the public would find the real world interesting again and junk journalism would finally lose its luster.