For all the hoopla surrounding the British premiere of A Mighty Heart, the movie about the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, there is a gentle warning I send from across the Atlantic: don’t expect to learn much about the man at the centre of the movie.
What movie-goers will see is a nerdy, dull reporter who ignores three warnings, including one from a US State Department security official, to do his interview in public. Instead, he goes off blithely in a car for the scheduled interview from which he never returned.
The celluloid Danny doesn’t resemble at all the dynamic, colourful and judicious reporter I knew as a friend and colleague for nine years.
Not long after 11 September, explaining his whereabouts in India, he wrote to me: ‘I’m in Jaipur now, following up on possible Osama connections to the Tanzanite trade. I don’t know if there’s anything to it, but I do know Jaipur is beautiful and our hotel is luxurious, so I’m pretty sure this investigation is going to take many days.’
Sadly, director Michael Winterbottom and the producers cut Danny as the voiceover during the script writing phase, and instead of being the main focus, Danny gets to be a something of a cameo in his own story.
While watching the movie, I cringed as I listened to the hesitant dialogue written for Danny. For example, while he was being driven to his supposed interview. ‘How far are we going?’he asks, pensively. ‘Is it… is it far?’
The portrayal of Danny on the big screen should be of concern to journalists because Danny’s abduction and murder represented a turning point in the dangerous reality journalists now face.
To me, to misrepresent the man at the heart of this tragedy is not only disappointing. It’s irresponsible. At a time when journalists and media professionals are walking around with targets on their backs, the world needs to better understand what motivates – and inspires – journalists such as Danny to get into cars with strangers. A Mighty Heart fails to do so.
I had the honour of becoming friends with Danny in the summer of 1993 when we were both reporters in the Washington bureau of the Wall Street Journal. We decorated our cubicles with McDonald’s Happy Meal toys, organised an office Halloween trick-or-treating party for our older colleagues’ children, and challenged each other to get unconventional stories – from demolition derbies to mile-high clubs – on the paper’s front page.
In those days, the gravest dangers we faced were threats from the Dow Jones accounting department to cancel our corporate American Express card for not filing our expense accounts on time.
Unlike the snapshot in the movie, Danny was a careful reporter, sending me an email after US bombs started dropping on Afghanistan that was eerie to later read again.
‘I’m dying to go to Afghanistan,’he wrote, ‘but not really anxious to die.”
When Danny and his wife Mariane came to a house I was renting in Karachi in late January 2002, he did indeed get the warnings to only do in public the interview he thought he had with a controversial religious leader named Sheikh Gilani. But, from talking to Danny that afternoon, he knew all along he would be going to a private place for the interview. He told me: ‘I’m going to go to a madrassa to meet a sheikh.’
I raised my eyebrows and told him, ‘Be careful.’But I didn’t dissuade him and, while I wish I could rewrite history, that is what we did: take calculated risks to meet with strangers.
And that’s what journalists continue to do. If they didn’t ignore US State Department warnings, we wouldn’t even be in Iraq, Pakistan or Afghanistan.
To many, especially those in our jaundiced industry, it’s not news that Hollywood didn’t get it right. In promoting A Mighty Heart in the US, Paramount Pictures launched ‘The Most Inspiring Ordinary Hero Contest”, inviting essays to be submitted, but reserving the right ‘to edit, composite, morph, scan, duplicate, or alter’the entries. The rules stated that entrants waived their ‘so-called moral rights”, whatever that means.
Finding the truth of what happened to Danny is, to me, the best way we can pay respect to our slain colleague.
For that reason, starting earlier this month at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies, I and my co-professor, Barbara Feinman Todd, meet every week with a motivated, eclectic band of 21 students.
We make up the Pearl Project, a faculty-student investigative reporting project that we are running with a clear mission. We want to find out who really killed Danny, why they killed him and what the politics have been surrounding the murder investigation and criminal case, including the supposed confession of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Our model is the Arizona Project, an effort of the Seventies in which journalists came together to investigate the murder of mob reporter Don Bolles. As they did, we also seek to finish the work of our slain colleague.
As US intelligence agents have been inspired by Wikipedia software to create a top secret site, Intellipedia, to swap information, we have created a private, electronic newsroom that I call our Pearlpedia. There, we are charting our investigation, to be made public when we are done with our reporting.
As we navigate the labyrinth of Pakistani intelligence, jihadi organisations and US-Pakistan foreign relations, there is one magnanimous, steely-minded reporter that I wish could be working beside us: Danny.