By: Karen List
“Our Jill” was the headline on a recent editorial in the Jordan Times pleading for the release of the paper’s former reporter Jill Carroll, who was kidnapped in Iraq on Jan. 7. But before she was their Jill, she was ours.
Jill graduated from the University of Massachusetts Journalism program in 1999. She told me on the first day of her first class with me that she wanted to be a foreign correspondent. I explained to her that those positions went to long-time reporters on large newspapers who had paid their dues covering zoning board meetings. I didn’t know at the time that she wasn’t listening to me.
After graduation, Jill worked briefly for the Wall Street Journal, then moved to Jordan where she worked for the Times while she studied Arabic and the culture of the Middle East. She has covered the war from Baghdad from its beginning as a free-lancer, writing for many publications including the Christian Science Monitor.
In the best journalistic tradition, Jill covers the war not from her hotel in the Green Zone and armored cars, but from the streets. She moves through Baghdad wearing traditional Arab dress, blending in, speaking to Iraqis in their own language and giving voice to their stories.
Jill wrote recently in American Journalism Review that she went to the Middle East on her own because she would rather have jumped off a cliff than cover zoning meetings. She prepared herself in depth to tell the most difficult story of our time, and despite the growing danger that she chronicled, she stayed with it for the love of that story and of the Iraqi people.
For those who wonder why Jill was in such a dangerous place when she didn’t have to be, the answer lies in her commitment to honest, compassionate journalism and her understanding of its significance in the world. If reporters like Jill were not in Iraq, we Americans would know only what the government wants us to know. And that is not enough when a war is being fought in our name.
Jill talked about journalism as a noble calling in the last paper she wrote for me in Journalism Ethics, for which she had interviewed a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer. “At the end of the interview, I got up and danced around my kitchen,” she wrote. “Journalists are not afraid to ask tough questions or risk themselves to get out the information people have a right to know. I believe reporters are humble crusaders with hearts of gold, mouths of sailors, and pens full of unstoppable ink.”
My comment in longhand at the end of her essay reads: “This paper is so great that now I’m going to jump up and dance around MY kitchen.”
She’d developed that respect for journalism in part through her hard work as a UMass Daily Collegian reporter covering student government. Her reporting described some raucous meetings in detail, and those present were not always happy with her coverage.
In her last Collegian column before she graduated, Jill wrote that some students had come to the newsroom at 11 p.m. one night, surrounded her as she worked at her computer and demanded that she change her story, which included some of that critical description. She refused. The next day, she wrote, those students removed most of the Collegians from campus.
This was Jill’s message to them: “You wasted your time. No one even reads my stories because I have the most boring beat at the paper.” She wrote that some people at student government meetings had been drunk, “but in all fairness, you have to either be drunk, or a Collegian reporter, to make it through those three hours of torture every Wednesday night.”
In Baghdad, Jill didn’t have to cover student government or zoning boards. She wrote about Iraqi families who had lost their homes. She wrote about Iraqi children trying to learn in damaged and desolate schools.
Last April, Jill wrote a beautiful tribute to an American woman who had been killed as she worked to get accurate counts of civilian casualties in Baghdad. Marla Ruzicka, a friend of Jill’s who like her was 28 years old, died when she was caught between a suicide bomber and a military convoy.
“The only thing we can say now is at least she died doing what she wanted, doing what she really, really believed in,” Jill wrote in the Monitor. “If she were still here, she’d be most worried now about her driver’s family and who will take care of all the other Iraqi families she was working with. She would point out, this happens to Iraqis every day and no one notices or even cares.”
Jill too is doing what she wants to do. And like Marla, Jill would be uncomfortable, I think, with the media spotlight on her. One of her friends describes her as “aggressively humble.” She is heartbroken I know over the murder of her translator, Allan Enwiyah, and worried about his family.
Jill’s own family, her mother Mary Beth, father Jim, and sister Katie, have shown tremendous strength and resolve in their quest to have her returned safely to them. She’s always been their Jill.
But since 1997, she’s been our Jill too. And we can’t wait to see her again and to see her work enlightening the world. When that happens, you can bet we’ll all be dancing in our kitchens.