by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
February 28, 2002
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- The repulsive way in which journalist Daniel Pearl of The Wall Street Journal was killed in Pakistan -- his throat slit on camera after he was humiliated for being a Jew! -- shocked and saddened us all.
But with all the suffering and death in this world, you mightwonder why we are paying so much attention to the death of just one man. One answer is that we can learn a lot about our own hypocrisies, great and small, from what has come to light in the wake of Pearl's murder.
A few months ago, for example, Robert Fisk, a reporter for the British newspaper The Independent, was badly beaten and nearly killed in Peshawar by a crowd of Afghan refugees; they thought he was an American. He wrote a moving story describing this experience. Then an American paper responded by saying that Fisk got what he deserved.
"I was astounded," Fisk said. "I had almost died, but thearticle ... carried a headline that 'multiculturalist (me) gets his due.' Mysin, of course, was to explain that the crowd had lost relatives inAmerica's B-52 raids, that I would have done the same in their place. Thatshameful, unethical headline, I should add, appeared in Daniel Pearl's ownnewspaper, The Wall Street Journal." The Wall Street Journal has suffered greatly since Sept. 11, when its offices in downtown New York were destroyed during the World Trade Center attack. But it is difficult to feel sorry for a paper with so little empathy and so much rock-hardened ideology.
After Pearl's death, for another example, Paul Steiger, the Journall's managing editor, said in a statement, "We ask our colleagues in the press to respect (the Pearl family's) privacy, and to permit them to grieve undisturbed. The Wall Street Journal is a public institution, but the Pearls are private citizens."
Ask anyone who has ever had the opportunity (or is it the misfortune?) to be brushed by breaking news -- Gary Condit, Princess Diana, Monica Lewinsky, Richard Jewell -- and they will tell you that leaving people alone in times of tragedy is not what journalists do.
Steiger's hypocrisy did not go unnoticed. Writing in the Chicago Sun- Times, Richard Roeper said, "There's no doubt that the next time theWall Street Journal does a story on a high-profile murder, and the victim's associates plead for the media to back off, the Journal will ignore this request in favor of getting the best story possible."
There's no getting away from the fact that foreign correspondents do a dangerous job. A total of 37 journalists were killed in 2001. Nine were killed in Afghanistan, which is more than the number of American soldiers killed there in combat.
We may never know why Pearl was singled out and killed. It may have been because he was an American, a reporter, a Jew, an Israeli citizen (it seems that he was), for revenge, or because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time -- or all of the above. Pearl may have even been killed because his captors believed he was a spy. This is not unreasonable. Over the past 50 years, the CentralIntelligence Agency has sent many of its operatives into the field usingjournalistic credentials as cover.
After Pearl's death, Edward Seaton, editor-in-chief of the Manhattan (Kan.) Mercury and former president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors said, "I would hope that out of this tragic result the Central Intelligence Agency will recognize that its failure to insist that no journalists be used as agents and that no journalistic cover be used by its agents is essential for free journalists to practice around the world."
But it did not help matters when, after the bombing, the Journal bought a used computer in Afghanistan that happened to contain files of a suspiciously terroristic nature, and handed it over to the American government.
We expect soldiers to be killed, but Fisk, among others, believes that journalists themselves have blurred the line between reporters and warriors. "We used to risk our lives in wars -- we still do -- but journalists were rarely deliberate targets," Fisk said. "We were impartial witnesses to conflict, often the only witnesses, the first writers of history. Even the nastiest militias understood this. 'Protect him, look after him, he is a journalist,' I recall a Palestinian guerrilla ordering his men when I entered the burning Lebanese town of Bhamdoun in 1983."
Journalists were protected because they alone could carry the message of oppressed peoples to the world. Theirs was a real mission. Now television journalists in Afghanistan and Pakistan wear combat clothing when they report on camera, Fisk points out, and clowns like Geraldo Rivera of Fox News, who arrived in Jalalabad with a gun and announced that he was going to kill Osama bin Laden himself, make a mockery out of serious journalism.
"The reporter had now become combatant," Fisk said.
If journalism is to do its job, which is help people understand the dangerous, corrupt and difficult world we live in, then reporters must be free to collect information. Isn't our country founded on the concept of a free press and the free dissemination of information and ideas? Yet when President George W. Bush called Pearl's death "barbaric" and "tragic," he was talking out of both sides of his mouth.
Instead of believing in Pearl's right to investigate a story, and in the idea of a free press and an open society, Mr. Bush and the members of his administration have been canceling our hard-won freedoms and silencing the press as quickly as it can.
They are hiding, just to take the most obvious example, almost all the information the American people need to understand the Enron debacle and the obvious government corruption. In an unprecedented action, the Government Accounting Office is actually suing Vice-President Dick Cheney in order to find out how much influence Enron executives had on the Bush Administration's energy policy, from which they profited greatly.
Certainly, Pearl's death is a tragedy. But it is still only one among thousands of deaths, all of them tragedies. These include the deaths of the people working in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept.11, the people trying to rescue them, the people flying on the planes that were turned into missiles, and the thousands of people in Afghanistan whowere killed or left homeless by American bombs in our futile attempt to kill Osama bin Laden.
So why care about Pearl? Maybe because he was not just a man, but a writer. As Elie Wiesel said, "Pearl was a man of words, but terrorists resort to violence because they have no words. Death becomes their language."
Joyce Marcel is a freelance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.