News & Features Feedback
New This WeekAround TownMusicFilmArtTheaterNews & FeaturesFood & DrinkAstrology

Witnesses to an execution (continued)


Mariane Pearlís wishes get extra attention, I suspect, because her late husband was also a member of another, more influential family ó that of his fellow journalists, who, sadly, are showing more consideration for one of their own than they ever would for, say, a dead American serviceman being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.

(In Wednesdayís Los Angeles Times, Mark Bowden, who documented the events in Mogadishu in his book Black Hawk Down, attempts to draw a distinction, writing that "the terrible images of dead Americans being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu conveyed better than any story how the American humanitarian effort in Somalia had gone disastrously awry." By contrast, he says, "Pearlís final words were scripted by his killers, and the images on the video are edited to convey only the message they intend, a narrow focus on horror and gore, like an extreme close-up in a porn flick. It makes sense only as a form of sick shock entertainment, and it puts the Phoenix in the same league as the tabloids that published gory crime-scene photographs." Yet the Mogadishu photos are actually more graphic than the tiny, grainy Pearl images ó and raise precisely the same questions about taste and judgment, as, indeed, they did at the time they were published.)

Which brings me to my second, and more important, reason for advocating showing the Daniel Pearl video and photos: they are not qualitatively different from any terrible images that appear in the media whenever some truly awful event takes place. In the immediate aftermath, the critics are in high dudgeon. Often, though, with the passage of time, we come to see the value of going where the squeamish might not.

Take, for instance, the infamous photo that the New York Daily News published in 1928 of Ruth Snyder being electrocuted for the murder of her husband. Tom Howard, a Chicago Tribune photographer brought in specifically because he was unknown to authorities at Sing Sing Prison, got the shot by strapping a camera to his ankle. The photo was published beneath the banner headline DEAD! Audacious and tasteless? Absolutely. But by 1979, when the Daily News published the book Fifty Years in Pictures, the editors were arguing that the photo "focused public attention on capital punishment and likely was a factor in its virtual abolition over the years." (Of course, that "virtual abolition" gave way to a modern execution spree in the 1980s and í90s.)

Life: World War II, a 1990 compilation of photos that had been published by Life magazine, is chock full of horrifying pictures ó street hangings, murdered babies, and, of course, images from the death camps. Surely no one would argue that seeing such things is unnecessary, that reading about them suffices. Similarly, two photos that received Pulitzer Prizes during the Vietnam War ó a young girl burning from a US napalm attack, running naked down a dirt road, and a South Vietnamese military officer executing a suspected Viet Cong insurgent on the spot ó tell powerful, unforgettable stories that merely reading about them could not.

And terrible photos that received Pulitzers have sometimes been criticized for precisely the same reasons that the Phoenix has been criticized. To cite an example close to home: in 1976, the Boston Herald Americanís Stanley Forman (heís now a cameraman at WCVB-TV/Channel 5) won the first of his two Pulitzers for a photo of a 19-year-old woman, Diane Bryant, and her young niece falling from a fire escape in the South End; Bryant died as a result of the accident. "Reader reaction to the pictures turned hostile; they charged newspapers with being ghoulish, with catering to sensationalism, with invading Diane Bryantís privacy," wrote Hal Buell in his book Moments: The Pulitzer PrizeĖWinning Photographs (1999).

For that matter, the Mogadishu photo, which won the Toronto Starís Paul Watson a Pulitzer in 1994, evoked a similar reaction, Buell noted. "Readers bombarded newspapers with telephone calls, letters, and canceled subscriptions. Most complained that newspapers showed insensitivity to the dead soldier, even though he was not identified," he wrote. (Not identified, but clearly identifiable by his family and friends.) "Editors responded that only by seeing Watsonís picture ó which was more vivid than any written report ó could anyone understand the brutality of the fighting in Somalia."

As with the photo of Ruth Snyderís electrocution, horrifying photos can bring about change. The photos from World War II showed the world what the stakes were. The photos from Vietnam hastened the end of the USís immoral involvement in that misbegotten conflict. Stanley Formanís photo led to improved safety standards for fire escapes. Paul Watsonís, for better or worse, gave rise to the phrase "mission creep," and made American officials wary of getting involved in complicated local conflicts right up until the war in Afghanistan.

Which, of course, raises a question. What will the Daniel Pearl video lead to? Itís too soon to tell, just as it was too soon to tell with any of those other photos until some time had passed. But Mindich, in an appearance last Friday on The Connection, on WBUR Radio (90.9 FM), suggested that publicizing the images will call attention to the US governmentís unseemly tolerance of Muslim governments that fail to crack down on anti-Semitic, anti-American, and anti-Israel terrorist groups such as the one that kidnapped and murdered Pearl.

"I watched the tape three times, and I was just totally depleted ó my mind, my body, my gut, my head ó and I was outraged," Mindich said. "I was astonished that there was no outrage spoken by our government, our president, our media." Referring to Pearlís repeated statements on the video about his Jewish background, Mindich added, "As a Jewish-American, as a Jew, as a supporter of Israel, that hit me hard."

MORE THAN MOST people, Alex Jones understands what can happen when the media turn away from the terrible truth. In The Trust, his and Susan Tifftís 1999 biography of the New York Timesí ruling family, the Sulzbergers, we learn that the Times played down news of what was happening to the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe because the Sulzbergers didnít want their paper to be labeled an organ for Jewish interests. "Had the Times highlighted Nazi atrocities against Jews, or simply not buried certain stories, the nation might have awakened to the horror far sooner than it did," Tifft and Jones wrote.

I asked Jones this week about the parallels between the Timesí noncoverage of the Holocaust and the mainstream mediaís refusal to show what happened to Daniel Pearl. There are, he insists, few. "People were denying that the Holocaust was taking place," Jones says. "What the New York Times did that was appalling was they didnít treat it like an event that was happening at all at first, and then, when they did, they addressed it in the most minimal kind of way. I donít think you can say that we are unalert or unaware of what happened to Daniel Pearl."

The Pearl video and photos, Jones adds, could do "a great deal of damage" to "the culture of tolerance that we have in this country. This story has been reported. Everybody knows what has happened to Daniel Pearl. I donít feel like itís necessary to incite those passions more than we have."

A similar point was made by the head of the Shorenstein Centerís Washington office, former network-television journalist Marvin Kalb, who appeared with Mindich on The Connection. Kalb argued that the Phoenix was attempting to inflame rather than inform, telling Mindich, "It seems to me youíre on a personal crusade." (To which Mindich replied later in the broadcast: yes. "I believe thatís what the Phoenix has been about for most of its existence, to influence and change and make people think about things that need to be done," he said.)

But why is it emotionally manipulative to show the terrorists who killed Pearl for exactly what they are? Isnít it more manipulative to withhold those images? In fact, what could be more manipulative than CBSís decision to show Pearl speaking, and then to fail to broadcast the most gruesome part? Does the "culture of tolerance" that Jones lauds ó and that we all value ó depend on our somehow not seeing the truth with our own eyes? As WBZ Radio (AM 1030) talk-show host David Brudnoy said in an on-air commentary this past Saturday, "I think it is excellent journalism ... because we see how the enemy demonizes Jews, in this case a journalist, not a man with a gun, and America in general."

AS I SAID earlier, it took me no more than a few minutes to find the Daniel Pearl video once I knew it was out there. Which brings me to another point. By providing a link to the video and publishing photos, the Phoenix did not so much make these horrifying images available as it recontextualized them.

No doubt the video has been passed around in parts of the Muslim world for some time ó perhaps as a recruiting tool for would-be terrorists. When it surfaced on the Internet, it was on a Web site called, which publishes gross-out photos of accidents, autopsies, and the like for the viewing pleasure of its perverse audience. After the FBI threatened, the Web siteís Virginia-based service provider,, posted the video in order to make a proĖFirst Amendment statement.

(And by the way, further evidence regarding the FBIís idiocy can be found in a story. owner Ted Hickman is quoted as saying he refused to give the agency the name of Ogrish.comís founder unless he got a subpoena. Well, letís see. A "whois" search at the Network Solutions Web site,, reveals that the owner of is one Dany Klinker, of Kalverstraat, Amsterdam 5142TY, the Netherlands. Okay, maybe itís a fake. Maybe heís just a frontman. But if the FBI really wants to know, that sounds to me like a pretty good place to start.)

The Phoenix is the first media outlet to place the video in its proper context ó as a piece of "political pornography," as Mindich put it, that should outrage all of us. Letís not forget, too, that Pearlís execution took place at a time of rising anti-Semitism worldwide, not just in Muslim societies, but in Europe as well.

Last Friday, columnist Jan Herman, in a passionate defense of the Phoenix, wrote, "For the first time in my life, after seeing that video I understand in my gut what I have always thought I understood in my head, what I thought I understood after reading Levi and Celan and Eli Wiesel and Daniel Goldhagen and all the rest. After seeing that video I now tremble with the same foreboding that two weeks go two Holocaust survivors told me they were feeling: ĎIt can happen again. It has already begun.í"

Yet Hermanís own attempt to provide a link to the video was nixed, he noted: "I had thought about it long and hard and felt it was my moral obligation. But it has since been taken down because (Iíve been informed) I am not to link to anything that would not show itself. I donít think anybody should be forced to watch this video, but I donít see why it should be suppressed."

Nor do I. Daniel Pearl is a martyr ó an involuntary one, executed and displayed by his captors for their own unimaginably evil purposes.

As with Alexander Katan, we must reclaim him for ourselves.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at

page 1  page 2 

Issue Date: June 13 - 20, 2002
Back to the News & Features table of contents.