As the media struggles to make sense of conflicts breaking out in different parts of the world — the rise of new militant orders such as ISIS and the recent beheading of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff — it takes courage, and a mighty heart, to stand up and look within. That’s what journalist Mariane Pearl did as she delivered the first Ramnath Goenka Memorial Lecture in New Delhi on Tuesday.
“Yes, we are in danger,” she said. “Somewhere along the wars, we have lost the old unspoken agreement that (journalism) is a neutral and fair profession… All of us are forced to wonder what kind of journalism exactly is worth dying for.”
When Pearl speaks about “the journalism that’s worth dying for”, you sit up to listen. Because she knows exactly what that means: 12 years ago, her husband Daniel Pearl was brutally murdered by militants in Pakistan.
Highlights: Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards
As she took the podium after 59 journalists were honoured for some of the finest stories of 2011 and 2012, she spoke about how the award winners exemplified courage. “The foundation of The Indian Expressand its focus on quality journalism comes from one man, Ramnath Goenka. This man alone has created a legacy of courage, one that has the potential to bring an entire country towards greater freedom. I believe it is important to remember the potential of a single determined individual to bring creative change.”
Pearl simply drew from her story and her husband Daniel’s to say how journalism is at once both complex and simple.
“Danny’s and my personal chart was to never forget that beyond the news there are individuals, beyond the politics is a human society, beyond our differences, there is common ground. That common ground is what terrorists are seeking to destroy… My husband was killed by the same terrorists who just murdered two more journalists in the same horrific fashion and who threaten to kill more of us.”
She spoke of how terrorists operate by creating a narrative and using “labels” extensively. “Wars and conflicts can’t live without a narrative, a justification that breeds on frustration, ignorance and fear.”
So how do journalists deal with this? By “creating a counter narrative”. Just as in jihad the individual fights with himself to become a better human being, journalists need to “resist all the pitfalls of our profession… resist the appeal of sensationalism, resist the temptation to oversimplify complex matters or please those in power. Instead, we must apply our founding principles: give a voice to the voiceless, always put the person the centre of the story, resist power and let those values that define our profession to become who we are. The search for integrity is our lifeline.”
She spoke about how her past had “hard-wired” her to “think beyond labels”. “My mom was born in Havana, Cuba, she had both black and white ancestors and she even had a Chinese grandfather. My father was born in Amsterdam. Danny’s mom was born in Baghdad. Persecuted because she was Jewish, she fled to Israel. Danny’s dad was born in Israel, he is of Polish origin. Danny was born in Princeton and I was born in Paris, France. Our son Adam was conceived in India and travelled seven countries before he was even born. Danny was Jewish, I am a Buddhist,” she said.
The managing editor of Chime for Change, a global journalism platform which highlights powerful stories about girls and women and the potential of individuals to bring change, Pearl began her career in France as a radio journalist covering immigration issues. She was writing for a French magazine when her husband was South Asia bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal.
It was when Pearl spoke about Daniel — how they met in Paris; how “Danny was like a comic book character”; how his WSJ in London had a giant scroll representing Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini, a beach chair and the most impressive collection of little monsters on his shelves” — that she instantly connected with those in the audience.
“When we first married, we had a great life in Paris. Both had good jobs, great food, view of the Eiffel Tower. We could have easily made it our world but we both knew that somehow, it was the end of our development as journalists and as individuals.”
So the couple moved to India, a “humbling experience” because they thought they would be an exotic couple who everyone wanted to meet, but “no one cared”. She worked with Daniel on most of his stories and when 9/11 happened, they flew to Pakistan. With no clear picture of the action in Afghanistan, journalists merely speculated. The media, she said, was becoming the “third party of a bilateral war”.
Pearl was then five months pregnant with their child, but the couple kept going in and out of Karachi depending on where their stories took them. Two days before Daniel was kidnapped, the couple found out that they had a baby boy on the way and decided to name him Adam.
On January 23, Daniel was kidnapped and Pearl knew right away it was the al Qaeda. He was held captive by “those who wanted labels, they wanted hatred”. News of Daniel’s killing came five weeks after he was kidnapped. Her first reaction was to grab “an AK-47 from one of the guards… If they had brought a person who was guilty (of Pearl’s murder) to the house, I would have shot him,” she said. “Putting that gun down was my biggest act of courage. I was pregnant and in deep pain, but I promised Danny that our values would remain untouched. I would live the way he died — with courage.”
Pearl wound up her lecture by reading out from the prologue of her book, A Mighty Heart, that offered a detailed account of the search for her husband. “I write this book for you, Danny, because you had the courage of this most solitary act: die with your hands in chains but your heart undefeated… I write this book to show that you were right: the task of changing a hate-filled world belongs to each one of us… I write this book for you, Adam, so that you know that your father was not a hero, but an ordinary man. An ordinary hero with a mighty heart. I write this book for you so that you can become a free man.”
Later, as Pearl took questions from the audience about reporting in these troubled times, she said, “I don’t have theories for you, only my own experience.” When asked about the narrative the media must choose when almost everyone is a protagonist in the story that is breaking, she said, “When James Foley died, a lot of people in the media approached me for my reaction. But I had nothing to say. I had never met Foley… what am I supposed to say? They wanted me to talk, display emotions, because my husband had died the same way. It’s so wrong. The fact is that these terrorists play around with the media…”
To a question on whether news organisations were giving terrorist organisations “an oxygen of publicity” by running their videos of torture and beheadings, Pearl said that was a call the media should take. “Why do these (terror outfits) make a video? Even if it is only for strategic reasons, we can’t follow their instructions.”
When asked if the pressure to tell the story succinctly, with an emphasis on the headline point, takes away from the larger story, Pearl said the job of journalists is to simply “put everything on the table”.
She also had a piece of advice for young journalists hoping to report from conflict zones. “There is no value in losing your life, becoming a martyr. It’s important to see the big picture. When you go out and report, you become the narrative. Ask yourself, who am I going to represent. If it is your editor, don’t go. If you have another purpose based on your values, go for it.”
By the end of the session, Pearl had got across a simple message: journalism is about courage — the courage to be able to tell stories, the courage to touch hearts.