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In Beirut, A Family’s Search for Austin Tice

On August 13, 2012, Austin Tice, a 31-year-old American journalist writing for McClatchy newswires, the Washington Post and other publications vanished without a trace from the Damascus suburb where he’d been living and working.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Tice, a former USMC infantry officer, had put his law studies at Georgetown University on hold to cover the Syrian conflict.

In May, Global Post, investigating the disappearance of one of its own freelance reporters, James Foley, <a href=”http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/syria/130503/james-foley-american-journalist-held-syrian-government” target=”_blank”>said</a> it believed Foley, along with at least one other American journalist (widely believed to be Tice) was being held by the Syrian regime in the vicinity of the capital.

On a fact-finding visit to Beirut this week, Austin’s parents, Marc and Debra Tice, talked with Syria Deeply.

Syria Deeply: You had to be nervous when he said, “I’m moving to Syria.”

Marc: Going back to when he told us that he was going to go to Syria in the first place, if you know Austin, you know that he’s not reckless, he’s incredibly thoughtful, he’s not impulsive. He’s also incredibly passionate and determined, and when he decides he needs to do something, that’s what he’s going to do. He didn’t go lightly. He talked to a lot of people before he went. He does have training. He’s not new to areas of crisis. So we had that confidence. On the other hand, of course you’re concerned.

Debra: But I still get concerned when he’s home and rides his bike without a helmet.

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Marc: Or the motorcycle he bought.

Debra: Oh my gosh.

Marc: We learned a long time ago not to talk him out of something. We try to ask whatever questions we can ask to make sure he’s thought of anything. What advice do we have to give him about journalism in Syria? We don’t have any.

Debra: My personality – Austin was home-schooled – is that a job half-done is a job wholly undone. So for him to want to tell this story, he needed to do all he could to get the whole story. It was important to him to try to understand all sides of the story. He just wouldn’t be satisfied with half. It had to be all.

SD: Was it an anomaly not to hear from him?

Marc: If we didn’t Google chat or Facebook with him [personally], we saw where he had chatted or emailed or talked to somebody, and we know all the people he was talking to. So pretty much every day, we’d communicate with him or know he was communicating with someone. One time we didn’t hear from him for two days, and –

Debra: I knew that I was on very thin ice when I picked up the phone for the first time, found his editor’s name and number in a directory, and called and said, I know I’m going to be in really big trouble for this, but …

Marc: And sure enough, when he popped back up, he was furious. “That was so unprofessional! I don’t want my mom calling my editor!” But his editor was a bear of a guy with a big heart.

Debra: They’ve been stellar for us.

Marc: That was the only time we’d not been in touch or heard anything from him.

Debra: And then he really drilled it into us, you can’t be freaking out after five minutes of not hearing from me.

Marc: So then when it was three days, four days, we’d developed a good relationship with the people at McClatchy. Debbie was canoeing in the boundary waters in Minnesota, and I was at home. I called McClatchy, and they said, We haven’t heard from him either, and we’re concerned. We got a call back from the Washington bureau chief who said we’ve got word out, then we got a call from the State Department that they’d been alerted and were seeing what they could do. And every day since then has been, OK, tomorrow we’re going to hear from him, tomorrow he’ll be released.

Debra: Our phones are on all the time, with us.

SD: Were you aware of the risks faced in Syria by freelance journalists?

Marc: When he went, he had an arrangement with McClatchy. So we knew he had a shot – originally he was only going to do photos – and that there would be someone that would look at him and get him published. I didn’t think about insurance, support, backup. I do now. Because we’re connected to organizations like Reporters without Borders. I guess if we had known about all this, we would have asked those questions.

Debra: We knew Austin would know the questions to have asked.

Marc: I don’t worry about him knowing basic field first aid. Of course he does. And he’s big, tough and very smart.

SD: He won the Polk Award while missing. It’s arguably the most prestigious award a journalist can win for Syria coverage.

Debra: It was so affirming that he was on the right path and doing something he’s very gifted at. And on the other hand …

Marc: He will be, if he doesn’t know now, he will be thrilled. And McClatchy gave him their President’s Award. It’s a great thing, you want to celebrate, but you can’t really celebrate. It is affirming, for him and for us, I hope, confirming that he was there as a journalist, that’s what he was all about. And he wasn’t some crazy guy taking a flier. He was capable. He was a freelancer, but – he had a contract going in, he picked up a couple more when he was there, he won the Polk. He wasn’t looking for adventure. He was doing a job.

Debra: Before he left, when he was letting news outlets know that he was going, he was really adamant about personal interviews [with editors]. He really didn’t want to just have electronic relationships. He’s a firstborn son, Type A, driven, confident. In August, he started getting calls from the BBC, from CBS, saying, can you do a spot for us?

Marc: He felt trained and ready to be a photojournalist. And then his editor asked him to write a backstory on a photo. When he did, his editor said, “And now you will write an article.”

Debra: He will be thrilled and proud and happy to have been recognized for what he was doing. He was confident that he could do this, but he’d never done it before. Anytime you try your hand at something you haven’t done before professionally, succeeding is a thrill.

(The Tice family welcomes tips and information at ****<a href=”http://www.austinticefamily.com/” target=”_blank”>www.austinticefamily.com</a>****.)

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