MRE’s Crawley Was a Newsman and a Gentleman

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By: Joe Strupp

When James Crawley got word in late November that he would be out as Media General’s military affairs writer, that was the least of his worries.

Soon after finding out he was being bumped from the beat he had held at two different news outlets since 1994, due to a shake-up at Media General’s Washington, D.C., bureau, Crawley got worse news: he had inoperable brain cancer.

At 51, Crawley, who also served as president of Military Reporters and Editors, was no stranger to cancer, having undergone a kidney operation in February 2007 to fight the disease. But within hours of finding out he would soon lose his job at the media chain whose newspapers include the flagship Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch, Crawley got word that results of a brain scan had come back with bad news.

“I’m under radiation treatment but it’s a very stubborn cancer that is usually resistant to radiation and chemo,” Crawley wrote me in a private e-mail soon afterward. “Odds are long, very long. But, I’ve survived a war, newspaper editors, presidential campaigns and threats from a mobster or two. So, if it can be beat I’ll do my best. But, at this point, I don’t want to advertise the situation or my condition. But, needless to say, it’s put a damper on my job search.”

That best was apparently not enough. He died Tuesday night.

In the weeks leading up to his death, Crawley was anything but a bitter or saddened figure. In several phone calls, he kept an optimistic outlook and seemed more interested in the well-being of his fellow journalists who were losing jobs than himself. He wanted no sympathy and remained adamant about keeping a positive focus.

But the cancer would not cooperate.

In the past several years, I spoke with Crawley often when issues related to Iraq coverage, Pentagon policies and embedded troops came up. Each time, he was forthcoming, candid and a great source for finding out how those covering such a difficult and controversial beat felt.

When a dispute arose in February 2007 between The New York Times and the Pentagon over publication of a photo of a wounded soldier in Iraq who later died, Crawley spoke out publicly for MRE — as he did on so many occasions — saying it was another reminder of how poorly many of the rules regarding embedded journalists in Iraq are structured and enforced.

“This is something that has gone on for some time and has caused problems in the past,” Crawley said at that time. “Different commanders interpret the rules differently. One commander will interpret the rule one way, while another will interpret them in the opposite way.”

Last fall, when AP photographer Bilal Hussein was being held by Iraqi and U.S. forces, Crawley penned a letter to the Pentagon demanding his release. (Hussein was released last week.)

“Bilal Hussein’s imprisonment is contrary to every notion of justice, fair play and the U.S. Constitution, which every member of America’s military swears to uphold and defend,” Crawley’s letter stated.

When word of Crawley’s ouster and cancer diagnoses spread among military journalists and other D.C.-area folks who knew him, MRE co-founder Sig Christenson had the idea of honoring Crawley with a party on Jan. 5.

The event, at the National Press Club, followed what turned out to be Crawley’s last MRE board meeting. After that meeting, as he and several others left the gathering, Crawley collapsed outside on a nearby street corner. Rushed to the hospital, doctors found his cancer had spread further, to his abdomen.

After four days in the hospital, he remained as positive as ever, telling me in a brief phone call that he “was feeling better and getting out.”

As his health worsened, fans and friends gathered support even more. Supporters ranging from Christenson to Lucy Dalglish, executive director of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, contacted E&P to make sure we knew of his condition. Still he wanted no attention, preferring to keep the dignity with which he had covered the news his entire career.

That career included embedding with U.S. Marines during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Melba, his wife of 20 years, said Crawley made sure he would get disability and health insurance coverage so she would not be left with high medical bills. She said despite his layoff, Media General provided him with six months of medical leave and health coverage that ended April 6.

“He went to great lengths to make sure our anniversary was very special,” she told me this morning. “Seeing him slowly dwindle down to a point where he couldn’t survive makes it easier to give him up, but it doesn’t make it right.”

For those who knew Crawley, both professionally and personally, it definitely seems wrong.

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