There is the temptation, on this particular day, to write a eulogy for Daniel Pearl. But I did not know him; I will leave the praise for the man and his work to others.
There is also the temptation to lament the perils of journalism, and to remind people who criticize reporters for various shortcomings that the job is a dangerous one; the noble pursuit of knowledge can on some occasions lead to an ignoble end. But that point will be made on this weekend’s edition of Fox News Watch, as well as in a variety of other forums; I will not repeat it.
And there is the temptation to speak of the family that Pearl left behind. His widow has already demonstrated a courageous grace by issuing a statement of appreciation for those, both in the media and outside, who showed their support for Pearl during his month-long ordeal. His child, of course, knows nothing of this; he is still a few months away from entering a sometimes barbaric world.
It is the family of which I write today, and the memorial which I hope journalists will erect in honor of all three of them.
Upon learning of Pearl’s death, Paul Steiger, the managing editor of his paper, The Wall Street Journal, made a request. "We ask our colleagues in the press," he said, "to respect [the Pearl’s] privacy, and to permit them to grieve undisturbed." So far, the press is doing just that.
But in the past, and in the cases of numerous other victims of violence, the press has behaved altogether differently. Reporters have jammed microphones into the faces of mourners until they practically gagged on them, and shoved cameras into their faces until their tears smeared the lenses. They have asked questions that were so insensitive as to be ruthless, and then rephrased them, repeated them again and again until they got just the displays of sorrow that they wanted for their stories.
Based on several years of reading e-mails to Fox News Watch, I am certain that this is one of the most common complaints of viewers about the media: they ask the wrong questions at the wrong times; they make a public spectacle out of private tragedy.
That they are not doing so in the case of Daniel Pearl is admirable. But it might also be taken as a sign of hypocrisy. Sure, the skeptics will say, the media treat their own with compassion, but what happens the next time an insurance agent is the victim of violent and well-publicized death, or when such a fate befalls a carpenter or a computer programmer or a secretary at a daycare center? How will the media react then? Will the mikes remain off, the cameras stay at a distance?
In his novel The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James writes of the journalist Henrietta Stackpole, who is scolded by Isabel Archer for her invasive attitude.
"My poor Henrietta," [Isabel] said, "you’ve no sense of privacy."
Henrietta coloured deeply, and for a moment her brilliant eyes were suffused, while Isabel found her more than ever inconsequent. "You do me great injustice," said Miss Stackpole with dignity. "I’ve never written a word about myself."
But, ah, Miss Stackpole, you and your fellow journalists over the ages have written so many other words about so many other people, and it is to those in distress that the injustice of which you speak has been done.
As I post this column on the Fox News website, I do not know how Daniel Pearl’s widow feels about flowers. Perhaps she encourages them. Or perhaps she will ask those who share her grief to make contributions in lieu of flowers — to her husband’s favorite charity, to some kind of fund for the advancement of journalism.
And perhaps journalists will advance themselves, deciding to remember Daniel Pearl by respecting the heartbreak of others as they are now respecting the heartbreak of the widow. Perhaps, in other words, they will build an invisible monument to their fallen mate, one constructed of equal parts decency, reticence and compassion.
If so, may it long endure, and may the absence of tear-drenched sound bites on the evening news be a legacy which would have made Daniel Pearl proud.
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .
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