The Pearl Project Picks Up the Story Where the Slain Reporter Left Off

By Alex Weisler

Published August 12, 2009, issue of August 21, 2009.
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For two years, journalism students at Georgetown University worked tirelessly to separate fact from fiction in the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and to finish the story he was pursuing when Pakistani extremists kidnapped and murdered him.

The Pearl Project, an in-depth graduate journalism seminar co-directed by former Pearl colleague and friend Asra Nomani, picked up where the reporter left off in 2002, fleshing out Pearl’s exposé of the alleged Pakistani terrorist links to Richard Reid, the British man convicted in 2003 of trying to blow up an airplane by hiding explosives in his shoes.

“[Danny’s] work is a window into the murder,” Nomani said. “The reason why people kill journalists is they don’t want to let them finish their work. We can finish their work and send a really clear message that whatever it is you’re trying to stop will not be stopped.”

In July 2002, London-born Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh was sentenced to death by hanging for Pearl’s savage beheading. But Sheikh’s lawyers plan to use the July 2007 confession of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as the grounds for an appeal. In July 2007, Mohammed confessed in a closed military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay to personally beheading Pearl, according to The Washington Post.

Nomani doesn’t believe that’s the whole story.

Part and parcel of the investigation, Nomani said, is reclaiming the man from the myth, extricating Pearl the reporter from Pearl the symbol.

“I hope we can bring Danny to life a little bit in the way journalists work, not in the heroic sense in the way he’s sometimes portrayed, but just as this really dogged reporter who pursued truth and died trying to bring to light truths about our world,” Nomani said.

Nomani runs the Georgetown program with Barbara Feinman Todd, associate dean of Georgetown’s master’s degree program in journalism. The two led a course in investigative reporting, guiding a team of 32 students as they followed leads, chased former FBI investigators and obtained faxed documents from Pakistani law-enforcement officials. And now, members of the Pearl Project team, although they will not yet release their results, are confident they’ve put to bed most of the questions they set out to answer.

Erin Delmore, who joined the class as a Georgetown senior, said the students “literally picked up where the FBI left off” in the Pearl murder investigation.

“This is just so far outside the realm of picking up a textbook and getting ready for an essay,” said Delmore, now a reporter with Washingtonian magazine. “People are skeptical that a group of college kids can solve a murder that took place on the other side of the world.”

The class divided itself into beats — Reid’s story or pursuing Pakistani law-enforcement leads, for example — and used a custom-created Web site to track information obtained about the case. Nomani and Todd are now deciding on the best way to present their findings. Options include a book, a graphic novel and a series of traditional news articles.

There’s something almost bittersweet, Nomani said, about being in possession of the information she’s pursued for so long.

“When you’re in the chase, adrenaline and obsession motivate you, and when you’re actually finished with the chase, you have to visit the truth, and that’s pretty burdensome. It can weigh pretty heavy on your heart,” she said.

Judea Pearl, Daniel’s father, said Nomani’s project proves that journalists can pick up the investigative slack when law-enforcement agencies “do not perform to the satisfaction of common sense.” His son’s story, Pearl added, can serve as a teachable moment.

“I think it will serve as a warning to potential terrorists, potential abductors, to know that if you abduct a journalist, you’re not only facing the court and the police,” Pearl said, “you’re essentially committing a crime against the community of the journalism profession.”

This isn’t the first time a group of journalists has banded together following the murder of a colleague. After the 1976 murder of Don Bolles, a founding member of Investigative Reporters and Editors, his Arizona Republic colleagues joined reporters from 23 other news organizations in an effort to find and expose the deep sources of corruption he was tracking when he was killed. The result was a 23-part series.

The basic spirit of the Pearl Project, Nomani said, is crafting journalism as a well-researched safeguard against extremism, a clear and sure voice speaking for those reporters now silenced.

“We think of the Pearl Project as a sort of insurance policy for the protection of journalists,” she said. “You can’t just get away with murder. We’re going to pursue the truth the best that we can, and we’re going to try to identify the suspects involved.”

Nomani and Todd said they wanted to ensure that the investigation had a pedagogical purpose outside of solving Pearl’s killing. Whether the students solved his murder or discovered no new information, the Pearl Project would be about the reporting process, Todd said.

“We were very honest with them about how hard investigative reporting is and about how it’s a lot of dead ends and the proverbial needle in a haystack,” Todd said. “Even if we weren’t successful at reaching our journalistic goal… we would be successful in teaching them the best practices of investigative journalism.”

Nomani and Todd hope that the Pearl Project will continue beyond Daniel Pearl’s story and morph into an established vehicle for investigating the stories of slain or kidnapped journalists. Nomani said the project may select a new subject as early as next spring.

Contact Alex Weisler at weisler@forward.com


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