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Mark Fineman, 51; Longtime Correspondent for The Times

September 24, 2003|Bob Drogin | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Mark Fineman, a Los Angeles Times correspondent for the last 17 years, died Tuesday of an apparent heart attack in Baghdad while doing what he loved best -- chasing the big story and living on the edge.

Fineman, 51, collapsed at a checkpoint while waiting for an interview with a member of the Iraqi Governing Council. He was rushed to a U.S. military hospital nearby but could not be revived.

When he first felt ill, Fineman sought shelter in a small guard hut.

He then chatted with a Nepalese Ghurka sentry in broken Hindi, the legacy of Fineman's two tours as a foreign correspondent in South Asia.

"It was classic," said Alissa J. Rubin, a Times reporter who was with Fineman. "Mark wasn't feeling very well and he still couldn't stop himself from engaging."

Fineman won or shared numerous journalism prizes during his 29 years as a journalist, including a George Polk Award, a National Headliner Award, an Overseas Press Club award and the Amos Tuck Award.

But friends and colleagues said Fineman was driven by stories, not prizes. He was tenacious, irreverent and a powerful writer who could paint beautiful word pictures. His devotion to his craft and his boyish enthusiasm for an adrenaline-filled adventure seemed embedded in his very character.

"If you think of foreign correspondents as a type, he was Exhibit A," said John S. Carroll, editor of the Los Angeles Times. "He couldn't bear to be away from the action. He just had an intrepid spirit. He wasn't afraid to go where he needed to go to cover a story."

He was competitive to the end -- crowing in an e-mail last week that he had flown from Washington to Baghdad in only 20 hours, not the two or three days most reporters need. His last front-page story appeared the day of his death -- his 795th Page 1 byline since he joined The Times in January 1986. In all, he had nearly 2,000 bylines from dozens of countries.

Shelby Coffey III, the paper's editor from 1989 to 1997, said Fineman "had a great touch with people," while his swashbuckling style and earthy charm gave him a "wonderful Errol Flynn persona."

A tall, rangy man, Fineman had worn a Zapata mustache in his youth, but sported a long brown ponytail in recent years. He usually wore a denim shirt and a suede jacket. If he owned a tie, he never was seen to wear it.

Fineman's frenetic life sometimes seemed to exclude sleep. He vowed to slow down when he transferred to the paper's Washington bureau early last year after two decades of virtually nonstop travel -- especially after he was treated several times for cardiovascular illness. He appeared to only temper his vices, however.

Born in Chicago, Fineman studied journalism and philosophy at Syracuse University. After graduating in 1974, he returned to Chicago for a series of jobs at several papers, including the Chicago Sun-Times. In 1978, he moved to the Allentown Call-Chronicle, and three years later, to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

There, he quickly found his calling -- writing front-page exclusives. A year later, he was sent to India as one of the Inquirer's first foreign correspondents. It was a time before computers, cell phones or CNN.

"Fineman seemed to come to full form at 3 or 4 in the morning, hovering over a telex machine with a Kingfisher beer in one hand and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth," recalled Rone Tempest, a Times reporter who was then posted to India. "He was tireless, absolutely tireless. Just being around him was fatiguing."

When Fineman joined The Times in 1986, he was immediately dispatched to Manila to cover the fall of Ferdinand E. Marcos' regime. Alvin Shuster, then the foreign editor, remembers Fineman's first reports as "remarkable."

"He wrote the saga of the last days of Marcos, a story so compelling that it was used across the top of Page 1," Shuster said. "I've never seen that again."

In 1989, the paper moved Fineman back to New Delhi. Steve Coll arrived the same year on his first overseas assignment for the Washington Post.

"I didn't know anything about being a foreign correspondent and he was generous from the first day," recalled Coll, now the Post's managing editor.

"He really taught me ... how important it was to go and see it yourself."

Once, Coll said, Fineman figured out how to cover bloody riots in Kashmir when it was too dangerous to drive or walk.

"Mark came up with the idea of covering the shootings and the riots on bicycles.... So we did."

When Pakistan's then-prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, flew to Washington to address a joint session of Congress in 1989, Fineman was one of two Western journalists invited along. And when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Fineman was the first American print journalist into Baghdad. Two years later, he was one of the few reporters who stayed in Kabul when fierce combat engulfed the Afghan capital.

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