One Reporter's Start

Why I Hired Danny Pearl

The letter was incredible. Never had I read more flattering, in-your-face cajolery. This kid was telling me he’d enjoyed my article, believed everything I’d written, and would give his right arm to work for me.

"Geez, you can’t be serious," I sighed to no one in particular. Naturally, I called him.

The letter had been signed by Danny Pearl, whose tragic death is now known to most of the world. But back in 1985, he was fresh out of Stanford with a communications degree and a drive to be a journalist. And as the editor of the North Adams Transcript, an 11,000-circulation daily in the northern Berkshires of western Massachusetts, I often needed reporters on the cheap.

I telephoned Pearl in California and joked with him that his letter was blatantly sycophantic.

"Yeah, I know," Danny said a little sheepishly. "So do I get the job?"

"Well, not yet, but if you can get yourself to New England for an interview, we’ll see."

He did, and, in short order, I was calling out, "Pearl, how long is that story going to be? You’ve got ten minutes to get it down here to the desk."

In the wake of Danny’s January 23 abduction and brutal slaying by Islamic militants in Pakistan, there are anger, frustration, and desolation. But there is also a measure of irony in recalling our first encounter. My article, which he used as a springboard for his inquiry and subsequent application, appeared in Editor & Publisher (October 26, 1985), a major trade journal for the newspaper industry. The piece examined the steady decline of international coverage in small and mid-sized American dailies and called for a new commitment to understanding the links between foreign and local news. The piece examined how international news could be localized and made relevant to readers who might never have the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal on the kitchen table. Danny, in fact, really did believe that global coverage mattered, and his commitment can be traced in his journalistic career.

As a foreign correspondent for the Journal in London, Paris, Bombay, and Karachi, Pearl worked passionately to show the significance of stories from "over there" for the American backyard. As his wife, Mariane, said when pleading with his abductors, Danny’s life was to "build bridges" of understanding between peoples and cultures. For his many friends in New England, that commitment first played itself out in his work in North Adams and later in Pittsfield at the Berkshire Eagle. He may have covered city hall politics, industrial relations, or Main Street development, but for him "getting the story" always meant helping contending parties engage with each other’s ideas. Somehow, the truth would emerge. As his career developed, his opportunities to build bigger and better bridges did too. That’s what makes his murder so senseless and repulsive. He was not just a name in the news, but a friend whose heart was generous and gentle.

Telling the global story requires skill, sensitivity, and guts. Reporters must combine pluck and prudence, skill and skepticism. Sources and contacts, as Danny’s investigation of the Al Qaeda network demonstrates, can be savage. Danny Pearl, age thirty-eight, was killed not because of who and what he really was, but because he was caricatured by the prejudices of fanatics who reduced him to a symbol: an American, a journalist, a Jew.

As the tape now being investigated by Pakistani and American authorities suggests, he was brutally murdered because his captors saw in him the Great Satan of economic exploitation, the anti-Islamic hostility of the Western press, and the pro-Israel network of world Jewry. The espionage claims and caricatures were absurd, but fanatics feed on misrepresentation and distortion. Such minds are produced by precisely what Danny tried to overturn. Notepads, telephone calls, interviews, documents, and analysis, as well as meeting sources often suspicious and hostile to the American press, constitute the hard work of journalistic bridge-building. And by telling the story "from the other side," Danny hoped to widen and deepen the perspectives of readers at home.

In the years since Danny Pearl began reporting, media-buyouts, corporate consolidations, and budget cutbacks have eroded even further the international dimension of news. Reduction of international coverage afflicts newspapers, radio, and television throughout the country, as recent studies by the Newspaper Advertising Bureau, the Center for Media and Public Affairs, and several universities have made clear.

Since September 11, the relationship between the domestic quality of life and citizen engagement with issues, personalities, and forces abroad should be apparent to all. The "global village" is now in the backyard, and the stakes are high: America’s political future, international understanding, and domestic safety.

There have been many tributes for Danny. He was remarkable: compassionate, laid-back, and determined—with an infectious grin. In a bizarre twist, Danny himself proved the point of my E&P article. He became the story and showed how the international intersects with the local.

Desolate as his death leaves me, it will remain my privilege to have been his first editor. His journalistic coups and exotic datelines made his old colleagues proud. And even if a few years passed between a coffee or a beer, Danny always made it easy to be his friend, venturing even into a Benedictine abbey to see where his old editor ended up.

His incessant calls and interviews, his perpetual curiosity, and his pleas for just a little more time to develop his story—the nightmares of editors on deadline—reveal values every journalist, and every American, should prize. When journalists get it right, they pursue truth itself. This side of eternity, truth may remain elusive and contentious, but Danny was committed to finding as many little "truths" as he could. And, if Thomas Aquinas is right, "truth cannot contradict truth."

The day I learned of Danny’s abduction, Psalm 27 was chanted at Mass. "The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom should I fear? The Lord is my life’s refuge; of whom should I be afraid?" I heard it then as a confident assertion of his eventual freedom. Now, it speaks of a deeper hope and strength. "I believe I shall see the bounty of the Lord in the land of the living," the psalm continues. May Danny know that land, and may we, for our part, continue the work for which he lived and died.

Published in the 2002-04-05 issue: 
Tags

Jerome Joseph Day, OSB, teaches journalism, communications, and literature at Saint Anselm College, Manchester, New Hampshire. Prior to entering the Benedictine order, he was managing editor of the North Adams Transcript in North Adams, Massachusetts.

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Culture
Collections