Learning From The Daniel Pearl Standard
My friend Judea Pearl’s writing is frequently moving, and always incisive. On the yahrzeit of his son, Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl, HY”D, brutally slain in Pakistan six years ago, Dr. Pearl creates a new litmus test for journalism in an article in the Wall Street Journal.
No one in whom a Jewish heart beats even faintly will ever forget the words that Daniel proclaimed just before al-Queda beheaded him. “My father’s Jewish, my mother’s Jewish, I’m Jewish! Back in the town of Bnei Brak there is a street named after my great grandfather Chayim Pearl who is one of the founders of the town.”
While we still grapple with the undiminished impact of those words, the task is so much more difficult for his parents. They have thrown themselves into the work of making their son’s death work against those responsible for it. While working to support voices of moderation and tolerance within the Muslim world, they have worked just as tirelessly to out the phonies, to expose the difference between those who are posturing and those who are genuinely committed to decency and coexistence. “Moral relativism died with Daniel Pearl in January 2002,” he writes. Having come face to face with evil as purely distilled as it gets, there can be no hiding behind arguments of cultural differences and alternative perspectives. Pure evil must be labeled as such, without equivocation, without excuses, and without mitigating modifiers.
Dr. Pearl relates that the Pakistani Consul General offered condolences to the Pearls in their home here in Los Angeles. When they spoke about the antisemitic content of Danny’s murder, she commented, “”What can you expect of these people who never saw a Jew in their lives and who have been exposed, day and night, to televised images of Israeli soldiers targeting and killing Palestinian children.” Dr Pearl realized that this was not a hollow excuse, but a fact of life. Journalists – colleagues of his son – had become accessories in the propagation of evil, by helping to tell half-truths and outright lies. The Daniel Pearl video released by al-Queda was set against a background of Mohammed al-Dura visuals, taken from the footage faked by the frauds of France 2 television, who gave the jihadist world an icon and a rallying point for its barbarism. Pondering their role, Dr. Pearl began to see the opposing role of the good journalist.
In one memorial service for Danny, a Catholic priest made an interesting observation that, serving as a mediator of reality, the modern journalist can be likened to the Biblical prophet. My first reaction was that the comparison is too far-fetched. Yet on further reflection I came to understand his point. Who serves today as the moral compass of society, and, like the ancient prophets, risks his or her life by exposing corruption, institutional injustice, terrorism and fanaticism? The journalist.
But the Bible also offers us a foolproof test for discerning false prophets from true ones. The test is not based on the nature of the reported facts, but on the method and principles invoked in the message. Translated into secular, modern vocabulary, the true journalist will never compromise on universal principles of ethics and humanity, and will never allow us to forget that all people, including our adversaries, need be portrayed with dignity and respect as children of one G-d.
Accordingly, to distinguish true from false journalism, just choose any newspaper or TV channel and ask yourself when was the last time it ran a picture of a child, a grandmother or any empathy-evoking scene from the “other side” of a conflict.
Hence, the Daniel Pearl Standard (DPS). If an outlet rarely or never pauses to uphold the humanity of the other side, it is fundamentally flawed. Like other simple and elegant rules, its brevity is inversely related to its wisdom.
It probably has application well beyond the world of journalism. Why should displaying humanity be limited to members of the Fourth Estate? Shouldn’t the DPS work for others, even those whom we expect to be agendized advocates?
Within our own community, different publications reflect varying degrees of openness. Some will not venture out of their own daled amos (four ells). They are equal opportunity ignorers – and they have every right to be! They focus upon what they and their readers – none of whom are their prisoners – want to read about. Others set up walls and boundaries quite close to home – but keep the barriers somewhat porous. Others yet seek a mixture of ideas and viewpoints, although within definite boundaries as well. (I am proud to serve on the editorial board of the OU’s Jewish Action, which encourages the exploration of diverse notions under the Orthodox umbrella. An op-ed from the head of the Society For Humanistic Judaism I don’t think we are ready for. Here at Cross-Currents, we have tried, and continue to try, to recruit voices from across a swath of the Orthodox religious landscape, welcoming contributors from the center to the pretty far right-of-center. Yes, we stop short when it comes to the left.)
So frequently, however, there are stories that burst through the walls we set up. Events, anecdotes, slices of life that tug at our heartstrings, sometimes for their pathos, and sometimes for their extraordinary triumph. It would seem to me we could greatly benefit from the DPS at such times, acknowledging the humanity of those whom we often ignore by widening our circle to include them. Surely there are many such stories that are edifying to readers, but come from outside the usual circles. Pretending that those people do not exist – or are fundamentally irrelevant – is a cruel blow. Many of out publications meet the expectation of the DPS with flying colors. Some fail miserably enough that reasonable people must begin to doubt the humanity of the publishers.
Our mesorah, I believe, places demands upon us that exceed the DPS. One of the halachos that Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 243) squeezes from the text of v’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha (love your friend as yourself) is that if you are going to talk about someone, speak his praises. Although the phrase is somewhat ambiguous, I was taught in my yeshiva days that the Chinuch held that we are required to find praiseworthy behavior in others, and give voice to our findings. (I remember hearing R. Avidgdor Miller zt”l repeatedly call on us to look for good things to say about our brothers, in all of their camps. This was despite some very strongly enunciated words of opposition to some of the goings-on in some of those camps.) This would certainly include giving credit where credit is due – even to those with whom we must often disagree, but who clearly fall within the halachic boundaries of inclusion.