U.S. journalist Austin Tice was kidnapped in Syria in 2012. His fate remains mysterious — though recently there have been welcome signs that he is likely still alive. But this story — like that of many reporters detained abroad before him — has had a hard time getting noticed.
That could change very soon.
Bill McCarren became the executive director of the National Press Club in 2007. At the time, he never imagined his job would entail designing creative public awareness campaigns to shine a spotlight on journalists in trouble. “When I started, the process was essentially writing a statement saying that we’re outraged. Recently, though, we’re trying to do more,” McCarren told me this week. “Unique events grab the public’s attention and get ordinary people involved. It probably also raises awareness with those we’re trying to influence.”
It's not hard to guess whom he’s referring to: decision-makers in the U.S. government and in Syria.
McCarren and the NPC have set themselves the challenge of freeing Tice, an ex-Marine who wrote for The Post and other outlets.
Little information about the journalist’s whereabouts has been made public since his disappearance. But the U.S. government, law enforcement agencies and press-freedom advocates think he is alive and that there may be an opportunity to win his freedom soon.
With World Press Freedom Day — held each year on May 3 — quickly approaching, McCarren decided to add one more dimension to the Tice story.
Last year, the FBI offered a reward of up to $1 million for information that leads to Tice’s safe return.
Though McCarren has been focused on the Tice case for years, he has found it hard to keep the journalist’s name at the forefront of public awareness. Inevitably, the longer a person is missing, the less media coverage his or her plight receives. Widespread attention usually comes only in the form of stories that are published around anniversaries.
This led McCarren to put on his creative thinking cap. “You know, ‘Press Club issued statement’ is a real ‘dog bites man’ kind of story, but if you can give people ways to get engaged, they will do it,” he said. “And if you can widen that circle beyond just making it attractive for news coverage, then you’re really getting someone.”
McCarren, who founded and operated news agency U.S. Newswire before taking the helm at the National Press Club, said these entrepreneurial ideas are as useful to the world of nonprofits and advocacy work as they are in the world of business. “You have to think about, ‘what can I do to stand out?’ I’m just applying the lessons I learned when I had a company,” he said.
McCarren was surprised to learn about the FBI reward and realized few people knew about it, or anything about Tice for that matter, so he decided to raise the stakes, as he had done before in other cases of journalists held abroad, including me.
In Tice’s case, McCarren identified a twofold challenge: increasing the number of people who know the journalist is missing and raising funds to add to the reward.
So he decided to enlist the help of restaurants. Lots of them. In fact, as many of them as possible.
Night Out for Austin Tice asks restaurants to donate a portion of their sales on May 2 — the eve of World Press Freedom Day — to the reward money. Just as importantly, the campaign also supplies materials about Tice to be shared with diners. “One goal is to get this information out to people where they live,” McCarren said. “So it’s great to reach people through community involvement, and what better venues than restaurants?”
Fifty-four restaurants around the country are on board as of Monday, and the number is growing every day. “I was so pleased and surprised when restaurants around the country started signing up out of the blue,” McCarren said.
One of the first to do so was GoodLand’s BBQ in Springfield, S.C.
Tice’s home state of Texas has been especially active.
Issa Ammar, who manages Jason’s Deli in Houston, committed the restaurant to participate. Ammar and Tice were childhood friends, and all these years he has wanted to help but didn’t know how. The NPC’s event gave him something concrete he could do — which is really all it takes to get most people to help.
Another Houston restaurant that signed up is Boheme, which hosts a popular monthly drag-queen brunch.
Three restaurants in Abilene, Tex., where Tice’s grandmother lives, have also signed up.
D.C. chef and humanitarian José Andrés is also lending support. His restaurant Zaytinya is one of the participating restaurants.
As grateful as McCarren is for the heavy hitters, he’s especially excited about the mom-and-pop shops in smaller markets: “When you’re marketing something, you never know what’s going to happen. To put up a site and hear from restaurant owners in South Carolina and Nebraska. That’s where real momentum can be created," he said. "It’s the power of narrative more than technology. Stories about real people matter. The support is coming from the story. Austin certainly has a story.”
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