The Gleam of a Pearl

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Ask a roomful of fledgling journalists if they would be willing to die for the truth, and not a hand will be raised. They do not mean no, exactly. They simply give the hypothesis a pocket veto. They think, for one thing, that the question is too darkly phrased and even implies an obscure promise of martyrdom — not normally the journalist's line of work. Ask the young roomful, instead, whether they would be willing to risk their lives to cover extreme situations in faraway places and report the truth, and the best in the room will get a gleam in their eyes — a little ignition of trench-coat wanderlust, their minds flickering in black and white for a moment, a few frames of '30s movies. Daniel Pearl, I gather, had the gleam. A sheer avidity to know things is the most endearing trait of any journalist. Long ago, the novelist and journalist John Hersey wrote in a sketch of Henry Luce, "He was amazed and delighted to learn whatever he had not known before." Curiosity is the noblest form of intellectual energy; in any case, your mind goes nowhere without it — except maybe to fanaticism.

For the polar opposite of Daniel Pearl's intellectual curiosity was the sort of dogmatism that took his life. An ideologue with a closed mind killed a splendid young man with an open mind. Not the first time that the desire to know has been murdered by the need not to know. Half the world belongs to candlesnuffers — to people who have no curiosity to find out, so to speak, how to take off or land.

Journalists are not often idealized or romanticized these days. Rather the reverse. Journalists' poll numbers are low. They have a corrupted image of lowest-common-denominator tabloid sensationalism, of superficiality and bias. Commentators, left and right, howl dogmatisms. Some of them take fat fees from companies like Enron in exchange for a few hogsheads of bloviation. But there should still be enormous respect and affection for the curiosity that you find in the eyes of real journalists, people like Daniel Pearl — not the mere shuck-and-jive entertainers and careerists but the intelligent ones who ask questions and respect facts.

Journalists are a varied assortment, of course — some of them as shabby, venal or self-important as the cast of Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, the 1937 novel that is still the most hilarious depiction of foreign correspondents and their publishers in the grip of a vigorous incomprehension of just about everything. In the book William Boot, who writes a nature column for a British newspaper called the Beast — composing sentences like "Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole" — is recruited by mistake to join a collection of journalistic mountebanks and hacks in covering coup and countercoup in the fictional African land of Ishmaelia. Much has changed in journalism since Waugh wrote, but no one who knows the current corps of foreign correspondents would fail to recognize a few types from Scoop.

Still, I think I would rather have dinner — in Belgrade or Islamabad or Jerusalem — with people like Daniel Pearl than with either the faculty of Harvard University or the first 100 names in the Boston telephone book. Why? It's their knowledgeable, companionable talk, the stories that their curiosity has unearthed and accumulated — their confidence that the world is a fascinating place and that journalism, though it may sometimes be wrongheaded or squalid, is also critically important and, quite often, a huge amount of fun. Correspondents like Pearl are the true students of the world's diversity (as opposed to narrow-gauge group-identity ideologues at home, each crowd sitting at its own table in the cafeteria and glaring at the others through a haze of grievance).

It's fun but also dangerous work. Eight journalists have died in Afghanistan since September. A total of 37 were killed last year, 24 the year before. Journalists are sometimes naive about their own safety, prone to an illusion that they are either bulletproof or invisible. In the mid-'60s, I walked blithely through the mobs during a riot in Harlem, with Molotov cocktails sailing off the roofs of apartment houses. I imagined that as a journalist, I was merely an invisible witness, as harmless as a recording secretary, as if I had letters of transit allowing me to pass between cops and rioters completely without consequence. The rioters left me alone but only because, with my blue eyes and flopping forelock of light-brown hair, they thought, in the half-light, that I was Bobby Kennedy. Otherwise, why would a white man be dumb enough to wander around like that in the middle of a riot in Harlem? So, like a jerk, I walked as a god among them for a little while.

Daniel Pearl, it is said, did not take stupid chances. But the world, as we see, sometimes has horrible surprises.