Jewish World Review Feb. 26, 2001 / 14 Adar 5762

Clarence Page

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Consumer Reports

It's hard to be 'objective' during wartime


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com -- WAS The Wall Street Journal's Daniel Pearl kidnapped and killed because his kidnappers thought his newspaper was too cozy with the U.S. government?

It is hard to piece together what those lunatics had in mind with their cowardly kidnapping and savage murder of Pearl. By all indications, he was a dedicated professional reporter who just wanted to get a story. But certain coincidences are chilling.

Late last year, the Journal reporter Alan Cullison happened to purchase for a reported $1,100 on the black market in Kabul a hard drive and a laptop that turned out to be contraband from the abandoned home of someone involved with Al Qaeda. After sharing information from the disks with its readers, the Journal also shared the files with the Defense Department, which was delighted to receive them.

On Jan. 16, the Journal carried a long article by Cullison and Andrew Higgins detailing similarities between the travels of an Al Qaeda agent mentioned in their computer files as "Abdul Ra'uff," whose itinerary closely resembled the movements of alleged shoe-bomber Richard Reid.

Pearl was investigating ties between Reid and Al Qaeda.

That same day, Reid was formally charged with the attempted shoe-bombing of American Airlines Flight 63 on Dec. 22. The indictment included the government's first formal allegations of a connection between Reid and Al Qaeda, saying he trained with them in Afghanistan.

Less than a week later, Pearl was abducted in Pakistan after arranging to meet a Muslim fundamentalist sheik.

Messages from Pearl's kidnappers variously accused him of working for the CIA or for Mossad, Israeli intelligence. But even that suspicion, bogus as it appears to have been, didn't explain why they had to kill him. The whole tragic episode appears to have gained the kidnappers nothing but a lot of heat from police authorities.

Unfortunately, for some people who come from political cultures where independent journalism is only a rumor, the difference between "journalist" and "spy" does not exist.

Which offers another reason, in the view of colleagues like my friend Salim Muwakkil, a senior editor at In These Times and a Chicago Tribune columnist, why "journalists should keep their tribal colors concealed beneath their professional garb."

Does cozy information sharing like the Journal's throw "doubt on the fairness of some American journalists," as Muwakkil recently wrote? Or do we have any obligation to be "fair" to kidnappers and murderers, regardless of what their political excuse may be?

The emotional fires surrounding the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 made some of our old journalistic conventions about "objectivity" sound more like an academic conceit. There was no need to embellish the facts that were so blatantly and horribly inhumane.

Before that terrible day, a newspaper voluntarily turning over such hot information to the government probably would have created a much bigger controversy than did the Journal's action. After all, journalists have gone to jail to hold onto their right to retain notes, tapes, source identities and other information.

But after Sept. 11, when the collapse of the twin towers forced The Journal to evacuate its office building, this was an easy call.

"We decided that this was the right thing to do in moral terms and reporting terms," Paul E. Steiger, The Journal's managing editor, told the New York Times in late January. "In moral terms, we would have been devastated if we had withheld information that could have saved the lives of our servicemen or of civilians. In reporting terms, we wanted to verify what we had."

Fair enough. When lives hang in the balance, the choice seems clear. As far as I was concerned, the deadly attacks of Sept. 11 put all Americans into the same foxhole, journalists included. I even wore my American flag lapel pin proudly for several weeks to show my defiance of the terrorists who attacked us.

Nevertheless, as the battle winds on and the age of terrorism becomes a part of our daily lives, the calls may not be as easy. As reports come in of fatal battlefield mistakes or questionable decisions by our government, it becomes more important that journalists try extra hard to be "fair" and "objective," not for the benefit of terrorists but for the benefit of Americans and everyone else who needs to know the truth.

Journalists will argue forever, I'm sure, as to what those simple words "fair" and "objective" mean when the country you love is at war and people you love are in harm's way.

The best assessment I can offer is that it means you must be willing to go anywhere and put personal feelings aside, no matter how deeply felt they may be, in your pursuit of the truth that, we hope, will make us all free.

That appears to be what Danny Pearl was trying to do. The best way that we, his surviving colleagues, can honor him is to try to do the same.



Comment on JWR contributor Clarence Page's column by clicking here.

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