The headlines on the Web site highlighted the news on Feb. 20. Daimler-Chrysler was expecting its American division to break even. Consumer prices had risen. President Bush “continued his war of words with North Korea.” Just off to the right-hand side of the screen, beneath the offer for a free trial subscription to The Wall Street Journal’s online service, was a poignant blurb asking anyone with information about Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who had been abducted in Pakistan, to e-mail the paper’s managing editor, Paul Steiger.
Amid the news stories, it was a little reminder that things were not normal at The Journal. Far from it.
The next day, the world learned that Pearl was dead.
From the moment Pearl was kidnapped from the streets of Karachi, Pakistan, until a videotape surfaced a month later confirming that Pearl had been murdered by his captors, the staff of The Wall Street Journal struggled. They struggled to maintain hope for the release of their colleague. They struggled to do whatever they could to secure his release. They struggled with simultaneously being both the subject and the chroniclers of a major, international story. And they struggled to continue to focus on their work. They endured through weeks of nerve-wracking tension, of erroneous reports that Pearl had been shot and his bullet-ridden body discarded somewhere in Karachi, of impassioned pleas from Pearl’s pregnant wife, Mariane, to release her husband.
On Jan. 23, the 38-year-old reporter and South Asian bureau chief for The Journal vanished after he had set out to arrange an interview with an Islamic fundamentalist leader to discuss accused shoe-bomb suspect Richard Reid. Four days later, photos of Pearl, including one with a gun aimed at his head, were e-mailed to The Journal. Days later, the kidnappers, who called themselves the “National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty,” demanded the release of Pakistanis detained in the American military base in Cuba as suspected terrorists, the paper said. If the demands weren’t met within 24 hours, Pearl’s captors said they’d kill the reporter, a 12-year Journal veteran.
Pearl’s wife and his boss took to the airwaves – mostly with international networks – asking for him to be let go. Open letters to the abductors were released. Steiger even put his own e-mail address on The Journal’s home page, hoping that he’d get word about his reporter. Despite a few e-mail hoaxes, he didn’t hear about Pearl again until he learned of his death.
All of this came on top of already chaotic logistics for the New York-based Journal staff. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, they’d been operating out of three locations because their offices next to the World Trade Center were severely damaged. Some 120 reporters were working in sparse, cramped office space on New York’s Avenue of the Americas, while editors were holed up some 60 miles south of the city in the corporate headquarters. The weekend/Friday section staffers were working in yet another site in the city. If there was a “hunkered down” mentality after Sept. 11, the Pearl abduction only intensified it.
Press accounts of how The Wall Street Journal staff fared during the weeks following Pearl’s abduction paint a picture of a group of people grappling with what was best for Pearl’s safety, for their readers and for themselves.
One reporter, a close friend of Pearl’s, told The Washington Post that she had resorted to drinking half a bottle of Nyquil just to get to sleep during the weeks after his abduction.
Another staffer said reporters were constantly found in small clusters in hallways talking about the case.
A small, core group met daily to map out how to handle the latest developments. Meanwhile, some newspaper editing responsibilities were delegated to others, affording editors time to devote to getting Pearl home safely.
Journal staffers and editors, often the ones pressing people for information and comments, suddenly found themselves saying, “No comment,” to the ever-inquiring media and passing off questions to the paper’s spokesman.
PROTECTING THE FAMILY
For Barney Calame, a Journal deputy managing editor who served as a liaison between the paper and Pearl’s family and wife, it was undoubtedly a nightmare. He had to assume some of the duties of managing editor Steiger – who was devoting all of his time to getting Pearl back – and also had to help make sure the paper still came out, particularly as the Enron scandal unfolded.
Busy keeping his ear to the ground for possible rumors about Pearl’s situation, Calame said he had to be ready to verify any budding news stories and provide advance warning to the Pearl family as to the validity of the rumor. Then Calame had to rapidly change gears and edit front-page stories.
“It was a little unreal, going back and forth,” he said. “ … Your mode there [with the family] is to be really encouraging and upbeat. Normally, as we do our news job, we don’t focus on being upbeat.”
For the staff at the Avenue of the Americas location, there was a lot of huddling around. But Calame said that, throughout it all, people stayed intensely focused on their reporting. “We felt pretty proud that the paper didn’t stagnate or fall into a fog because of Danny,” he said. Even among some of Pearl’s good friends in the newsroom, while they kept themselves informed on what was happening, they kept working. “There were people who were really working more intensely at what they were doing to keep their minds off of Danny,” Calame said.
Karen House, president of the International division, said as people were “constantly looking for news and updates,” there was a fundamental focus on getting the news out. “You have to keep writing,” she said.
But for a small group of editors, working with government officials to get Pearl out safely was a full-time job. Steiger spent most of his time trying to get his guy out of captivity. He worked with FBI and the State Department. He released statements directed at the kidnappers. Hours before Steiger was slated to receive the National Press Foundation’s Editor of the Year award, he became The Journal’s face of grief, informing the public that his reporter had been killed.
Others, like Calame, tried to pick up the work that Steiger had to abandon in order to focus on Pearl.
“There were a group of us who met daily” to discuss the situation, House said, adding that they had to strategize on how to keep the media attention on Pearl.
When it came to media attention, things became awkward for some Journal staffers.
Calame said it was very strange to be in a situation where he’d have to say, “No comment,” to reporters seeking to write a story on the Pearl case. “All the time, we were hoping to get Danny back alive,” he said. That meant referring calls to the paper’s spokesman, Steven Goldstein, because Calame said he “didn’t want to say anything stupid” that could possibly make the situation worse.
In his dealings with reporters, Calame said they were receptive to his refusal to offer comments; some showed a sense of sympathetic camaraderie. “Maybe the readers deserved not to have the camaraderie be too strong,” he said.
Covering the story themselves was also difficult because Journal editors wanted to be sure that nothing the paper reported would hurt efforts to get Pearl back. Calame said the aim was to “just report it straight out, play it very straight,” sans probing analysis, which he figured would come from other media outlets.
There were things that Journal editors ran that they might not have given much space had the kidnapped reporter been from another newspaper, he said. When celebrities such as Mohammad Ali issued press releases urging the kidnappers to let Pearl go, Calame said, “We ran more of those statements than we normally would.”
Then there were pieces of information that The Journal had but didn’t run with, like the details of Pearl’s murder captured on video that other media groups wound up reporting. “We just said that the videotape provided ‘convincing evidence of death,’ “ Calame said, even though he knew the graphic nature of the murder. “I knew there had been a beheading, but we didn’t print that.”
As the news of Pearl’s death was announced to the staff, there was a moment of silence. Many reporters cried. Steiger told the world that The Journal family was “heartbroken.” Larry Ingrassia, editor of the “Money & Investing” section of the paper, told The Washington Post: “It’s like the breath has been knocked out of the newsroom. People are in disbelief and stunned, and everyone is having a hard time thinking about anything else, much less the stories they need to write.”
Yet write they did.
The day after Pearl’s death was confirmed, The Journal ran a lengthy story, bylined by an anonymous staff reporter, which chronicled the ordeal and dedicated a substantial portion to memorializing Pearl – recounting his love for music, cooking, shopping, off-beat stories and, of course, his wife. “In Mr. Pearl, The Journal found the perfect reporter,” the article said.
And on the op/ed page, the lead editorial, headlined “Daniel Pearl, RIP,” thanked those who tried to get him released, including government officials in the United States and Pakistan. “We are grateful, too, for those who helped publicize Danny’s capture and called for his release,” it said.
It ended with a sentiment shared by many of the journalists – and not just from The Journal – about the importance of not stepping back from international reporting: “The killers of Danny Pearl may think they will intimidate American journalists into retreating from their job of reporting the world. They will discover that they are equally mistaken.”
The entire torturous affair has given Calame a new perspective on journalism and reporting sensitive information that could hurt vulnerable families whose loved ones are the subjects of stories. “It certainly makes me think more about when there’s a hole in a story, and the reporter says that that information [to fill the hole] will hurt someone,” he said.
And now, when the paper writes stories about terrorism, that pursuit will be dogged because, as Calame said, “This is so much more personal.”
Meredith O’Brien is a free-lance writer.