Mariane Pearl: Reflections on a journalist's death

Mariane Pearl


When I first met my husband Danny Pearl, he took me on a tour of his earlier life across America. Today, more than ever, I hang on to the memory of a special visit to the Berkshires where Danny had worked as a reporter for The Berkshire Eagle. There, he crafted his art, explored the complexity of most news stories, learned how to dig for facts and to interpret them. The Eagle was conductive to his aspirations. People there seemed to believe in what they were doing.

One late afternoon, before sunset, Glenn Drohan, a veteran journalist, and a few other of Danny's ex-colleagues came together for a passionate, jubilant exchange about what was best practice of journalism and what wasn't. We had scotch and heated conversations. There were no solutions; in fact, the response always was to keep searching. It felt like a time I have never experienced myself but still feel nostalgia for, back when journalists met at bars and argued until the story emerged from their collective, passionate and often idealistic minds. When newsrooms were messy and loud, and yes, smelly too.

I was truly happy then. Danny was smart, handsome and funny. But what made me fall irremediably in love with him was that willful ability he had to resist cynicism -- the sarcasm creeping up as journalists experienced a widening gap between why they wanted to become journalists and their practice of it.

Later, when we lived in Mumbai, India, where he worked as the South Asia bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, Danny and I pursued the conversation, just the two of us. In fact, it became the cement of our relationship and it made us fall even more in love with each other. Here we were, a Jewish-American boy with his Western Buddhist wife in a Hindu country at odds with its Muslim population and neighboring states. Everyone had their own partial but often valid verities which came to clash with other partial but valid realities, depending on perspectives. It is Danny who found our way out: "Ethics is my religion," he said. And on we went.

When my husband was kidnapped and killed by al-Qaida affiliates, these conversations became my lifeline, the ground on which I walked and still stand on to this day.

At that time, multiple truths exploded forcefully. Everyone seemed to interpret Danny and label him as a Jew, a journalist, an American, a hero -- but I did feel I held the truth when I say he was all of the above. He was the man he had become, someone who had managed to take it all in. He became this great journalist who took me on many crazy rides just to go the extra mile on the story.

When he was killed, I expected the political turmoil that enfolded. I kept practicing Buddhism and thought long and hard about ethics. It was crystal clear to me that if I wanted to deny terrorists their goals of destroying not only Danny but all those who identified with him, I only had humanism to oppose to this extreme level of dehumanization. I regularly went to Danny to feel the sheer force of a man who never betrayed himself and his values supporting me from wherever he was. But what did came as a surprise is how much extra pain some of the world's media would cause. And this is partly my story but essentially the problem isn't mine.

The first journalist I talked to, a few hours after finding out what had happened to Danny, had a weird, excited look in his eyes. It took me a second to understand he had just watched the gruesome video of Danny's murder. What he was interested in was to know if I had watched it myself and he probably hoped I would break down for the show. I sent him to hell and braced myself. Here was humanism for you: The hunger for sensationalism has no limits. Either I accepted this just so I could do my best to rise above it, or the very people that should most identify with Danny would bring me down. I saw that those whose job it was to ask questions had the hardest time questioning themselves. Still, I didn't expect to be fighting with a major American network as they were about to broadcast the video under the pretext it was "newsworthy."

The man who made that decision might as well have followed al-Qaida's guidelines to advertise their deeds, to become a platform that helps spread fear and horror for free. Why else would they make a video? This scared me most. It was dreadful to witness how easy it is for terrorists to manipulate the media. All they have to do is tackle our dark fascination for violence. That to me is newsworthy: How easy we are to read and how even the most simple-minded of these monsters can predict our reactions. The "newsworthy" justification sounded to me like a weak attempt to disguise commercially driven decisions with journalistic credibility.

Often, I would imagine a bearded man in his cave browsing the Internet to appreciate the success of his terrorist operation. On the other end of the spectrum, I saw people waving the banner of the First Amendment, the right to freedom of expression, when this is all about driving audience. When I tried to understand who was responsible for this ultimately, I couldn't find anybody. Tracking the decision-making process, I quickly got to professions which aren't known for carrying the journalistic gene: expensive armies of lawyers, boards of directors. The ultimate culprit, it seemed like, is the market. You just had to feed the beast. "We're giving our viewers what they ask for," I was told once.

"We, the people" are the market, I suppose. When the news came of James Foley's death in similar tragic circumstances as Danny's, I received a string of high importance rated messages asking me to provide the "human side of the story."

Speaking on behalf of James Foley is about the last thing I feel entitled to do. I have no news to provide, I have never been to Iraq, I have never met Mr. Foley, though I would have liked to. The "human side of the story" speaks for itself and any functioning individual on this earth is empathizing with James Foley and his family as I am writing this.

Therefore, I felt like I was asked to amplify the message of pain and horror brought by for those who seek to silence Danny, James and all the journalists who have been killed since 2002, regardless of their nationalities.

I answered the first 10 requests or so explaining briefly my motives to decline. The answers came: "I understand." Do they? Probably. Everyone is under pressure to produce "breaking news." To be leading the news cycle. This became a goal in itself and in its wake comes unfathomable damage. I trust that most journalists hated sending me this email but had to keep their jobs. The majority of journalists are hard-working, decent and brave people caught in a profession that is trapped between business interests and a bizarre flirtation with the entertainment media.

As for me, I still believe you can only fight terrorists with what they're seeking to destroy, namely, your soul. I have no ready-made solutions for our profession. I only know the world has changed, wars have changed and we better change too. Maybe we could start with decency, something we know for a fact terrorists can't do. And search for that same truth Danny dedicated his life to pursuing. The one with multiple ramifications, averse to simplistic explanations and sensationalist purposes.

And I can only pray that Mr. Foley's family is not going through a similar struggle, this rather unexpected source of despair when it comes to confronting our values to theirs.

Mariane Pearl is a journalist working in Spain.