June 01, 2009

Guests: Steve Stecklow, John Bussey and Steve LeVine

Pearl's Colleagues Discuss His Life, Perils of Journalism

By Lesette R. Heath, special programs coordinator

WASHINGTON — Seven years ago Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and murdered by terrorists in Karachi, Pakistan. The event shocked the world and underscored the dangers that journalists faced in pursuit of a story.

Steve Stecklow, the Journal’s deputy bureau chief in Boston and the last person to share a byline with Pearl, said Pearl "was not a guy who really took risks. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Stecklow, John Bussey and Steve LeVine were guests of "Reel Journalism," a film series hosted by veteran journalist Nick Clooney. "A Mighty Heart," the seventh film in the series, is based on Mariane Pearl’s 2003 memoir of what happened to her husband.

Bussey, the Journal’s Washington bureau chief and Pearl’s former boss, agreed that risks are inherent in reporting.

As a journalist you make "a calculated risk when you get in a taxi. No matter what, you are taking a risk. We try to reduce that to the lowest possible risk to get the story," he said.

Bussey, who is portrayed in "A Mighty Heart," flew to Karachi from New York after he got the news that Pearl had not returned from interviewing a source. Pearl was working on a story involving shoe bomber Richard Reid.

LeVine, who worked closely with Pearl in Pakistan and now covers energy and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek, added: "If you’re going abroad and going into a turbulent zone, you should know that you could get hurt." LeVine is also portrayed in the movie.

If a story is potentially dangerous, "I’ll go out with a fixer, translator or another reporter," Stecklow said.

Bussey pointed out that the Journal does not micromanage its reporters but sets a number of ground rules and asks them a series of tough questions before they take on an assignment. Overall, "you have to build a trusting relationship with the reporter," he said.

The panelists thought "A Mighty Heart" was well-done but said it didn’t offer a real sense of who Pearl was.

"The Danny in ‘A Mighty Heart’ is much more serious, more like a Marvin Kalb-type," Bussey said. "Danny delivered outstanding copy, but went against conventional wisdom. He was very much his own man. He was also a tremendous musician."

"Reel Journalism," sponsored by the Newseum and the American University School of Communication, showcases classic and contemporary films depicting the important role of the press in a democratic society.

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