News & Politics

The Lesson of Daniel Pearl's Death

Instead of asking journalists to toe the Pentagon's line, our government must allow reporters to keep their impartial distance -- or more men like Daniel Pearl may end up dead.
Along with the search for the killers of Daniel Pearl, there is another search going on: for the meaning of his death, especially among journalists.

While we may never know why the Wall Street Journal reporter was murdered, his death carries a message for reporters -- and for all Americans -- who travel to the poor, angry and confused places of the Earth.

Having walked in his shoes -- we were both foreign correspondents at the Journal -- I can only shudder at the horror Pearl faced when an enterprising interview turned into an abduction: his own. As journalists, we are used to witnessing the suffering of others with a kind of stoic detachment, a hard- eyed mentality that serves to shield us from the ultimate news flash -- that most of what's awful in the world lies beyond explanation.

But we often are unprepared to suffer ourselves. We are protected by the unwritten rule that nobody in their right mind messes with a visiting journalist, especially an American. Maybe they mistreat their local reporters, but not us. We are untouchable. We are always one phone call, or plane ride, from safety.

Whatever one calls this mentality -- to some it's another example of American arrogance -- it helps us revel in enterprise, to get things done in strange places, to sift the wheat from chaff, and, most importantly, to believe in our own independence. We represent, we tell ourselves, no one but our readers.

False Accusations

That belief is crucial to our ability to function in foreign countries. Danny's captors accused him of serving the U.S. and Israeli governments. He did nothing of the sort, of course. Such charges are as specious as they are predictable. In my own travels, across the former Soviet Union, in west Africa and in southeast Asia, I constantly heard similar charges. I would try to explain -- as Danny must have -- the tradition of press freedom in America, that we are neutral, as our Constitution guarantees, that we seek to report honestly about the people and places we see, even in the face of government pressure to do otherwise.

That has become harder to do since Sept. 11. Not taking sides is un- American, we are told. Displays of patriotism remind us that we, too, are American citizens, just like those who died so cruelly on Sept. 11. Aren't we entitled to take sides, too?

For media executives, the pressures are equally acute. Newspapers and television stations want their readers and viewers to feel they are on their side, that we are all in this war on terrorism together. Thus the full-page newspaper displays and television icons of the proudly flapping American flag.

In this climate, it has become increasingly difficult for editors to resist the pressure to take sides with a government that is presumably fighting the good fight.

Dangers of Assistance

Thus, in mid-January, the Wall Street Journal admitted that it had turned over to the Department of Defense a discarded laptop computer purchased in a Kabul market by one of the paper's foreign correspondents. The computer contained many files created by al Qaeda terrorists.

The Journal's managing editor, Paul Steiger, decided the Defense Department could not only assist his reporters in interpreting the documents, but that the government's war against al Qaeda also might benefit from the paper sharing the knowledge gleaned from its find.

As the Journal's foreign editor told the New York Times, "If something is abandoned, and it comes into our possession, and we determine that lives could be at stake, we will hand it over to the authorities."

Pearl was kidnapped two days after this "policy" was disclosed in the New York Times.

There is absolutely no suggestion here that the two events are linked, nor that the Journal behaved with anything less than the best of intentions. But it may be time now to rethink that policy. Confirming the suspicions of those predisposed to believe the worst about journalists' allegiances is a prescription for more of the kind of disaster that befell Danny Pearl.

Without qualification, foreign correspondents must feel fully free of the obligation to assist their government, even if the sharing of information might further the war effort. We have a State Department and CIA to gather information the government might not otherwise discover from reading the newspapers. Foreign correspondents are not agents of Interpol hunting international criminals, nor are they front- line soldiers saving American lives. Making them part of the "us" in a righteous war against "them" only serves to increase the danger they already face.

Avoiding Temptation

In this perilous post-Sept. 11 world, foreign correspondents also have an obligation to better observe elementary rules of risk-taking. The danger often lies within ourselves as we acquiesce to the relentless, competitive pressure for the scoop, the exclusive, the prize that awaits the most daring. For print journalists, the opportunity to go where cameras can't, or won't, only raises the stakes, tempting us further to throw caution to the winds.

It sounds pathetically sophomoric now, but I confess I long fantasized about getting abducted on a foreign assignment because of the great story I could tell on my release.

In the fantasy, of course, I always got released. I always saw my children again. I always wrote the big story. Now we know there is another ending to what we American foreign correspondents have thought of as adventure in the service of democracy -- knowing this means that the practice of both journalism and democracy may change.

How they change will tell us, in the days ahead, how we honor Daniel Pearl, in life and death.

G. Pascal Zachary was a staff correspondent for the Wall Street Journal for 12 years. Currently a visiting professor at the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism, he is the author of "Endless Frontier," a biography of Vannevar Bush.
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