Opinion: Danny and Marie

Tuesday, Feb. 21, marked the 10-year anniversary of the day we learned that Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl had been murdered by terrorists in Pakistan.

That morning I drove to the Daniel Pearl Magnet High School in Van Nuys, where I was to moderate a panel discussion titled “Journalists in Harm’s Way,” that featured four reporters who, like Pearl, have risked their lives to cover conflict.

The school is located just south of Birmingham High School, from which Pearl graduated. 

I grew up in Encino and went to Birmingham, too, a few years (OK, several) before Pearl. Driving back there was strange: past the long stretch of green parkland on Balboa Boulevard, past the tennis courts on the left, the golf course on the right. The buildings looked the same, drab stucco and chain link fence. I pictured myself riding my 10-speed bike through Balboa Park, then I pictured Pearl doing the same. 

I never knew Danny Pearl, but, like so many of us who live here, I understood his roots. He was familiar before he became iconic. What I couldn’t understand is how the people who murdered him could possibly see him as a target, as anything other than family.

Being part of this panel was, in a word, humbling.

About 300 high-school students packed the auditorium. I sat in front alongside four foreign correspondents: Rick Loomis, a Los Angeles Times photographer who won a Pulitzer Prize for his images of the siege of Fallujah; Jonathan Friedland, a colleague of Pearl’s at The Wall Street Journal; Alexandra Zavis, who has reported for The Times from Africa and the Middle East; and Doug Smith, also from The Times, who reported from Iraq.

Before we spoke, Loomis played a short, raw video of himself under fire with some U.S. soldiers in Fallujah. The chaos, the blasts of automatic fire, the screams as Loomis ran across an open stretch for cover — the students got the idea.

Journalists have long been exposed to great danger, and too many have died while doing their jobs, so I asked Friedland: What stood out about Daniel Pearl’s death?

“What happened to Danny was, for the first time, somebody was murdered deliberately and visibly and in a particularly brutal way,” Friedland said, “which made everybody feel a lot more vulnerable.” 

The journalists urged the high school students to spend time learning their craft, as well as learning the language and culture of a place before heading into danger zones. When you’re focused on your job — finding a story, figuring out how to transmit it, looking for batteries — you can push aside the sense of vulnerability, these veteran journalists agreed.  Zavis said she received some training for her difficult overseas assignments — “It was useful to learn first aid” — but in most cases, journalists are expected to hit the ground running.

“The way to prepare for any situation like that is to have a clear sense of why you’re there, what you’re there for, and keep focusing on that,” Smith said.

That, Friedland added, was part of Pearl’s gift. 

“He was really, really curious,” Friedland said, “and would spend a lot of time with people, learning how they function, and take the time to tell the story with great craft.”

In a time when so much of what passes for journalism revolves around Lindsay Lohan’s sex life, HuffPo rehashes or primary campaign gotchas, it was, as I said, humbling to be in the presence of people who put their lives on the line for journalism’s mission: to share the world’s stories with the rest of us.

Tragically, the danger didn’t end with Danny.

Ten years after his murder — on the same day our panel discussion took place — Marie Colvin, a correspondent for The Sunday Times of London, was murdered in Homs, Syria, along with the French photojournalist Rémi Ochlik. They were covering the Syrian government’s continuing, unchecked slaughter of its own citizens.  Many reports claim Syrian forces deliberately targeted Colvin.

In fact, in the 10 years between the murders of Pearl and Colvin, 625 journalists have died in the line of duty. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the most dangerous country in the world to be a reporter is Pakistan, where Pearl died.

At the end of the panel, the magnet school’s principal, Janet Kiddoo, invited Pearl’s parents, Judea and Ruth Pearl, to address the students. After more than an hour and a half of listening, the students sat stock still, attentive.

Judea Pearl spoke first. “Who serves today as the moral compass of society, and, like ancient prophets, risks his or her life by exposing corruption, institutional injustice, terrorism and fanaticism? The journalist. The true journalist will never compromise on those principles to protect humanity. And will never forget that all people, including our adversaries, need to be portrayed with dignity and respect, as children of one God.”

Then Ruth Pearl spoke.

“I want to say a few words about what this school means in our life,” she began. “We feel you are carrying Danny’s legacy, so we feel a very strong kinship to you. We feel you are part of our family, and we thank you. Any time you’d like to come to us, please feel free to contact us.”

These kids will have to be tough to follow in the footsteps of Daniel Pearl and Marie Colvin. But in that moment, you could understand why so many of them were crying.