Reporter had a flair for the offbeat

Daniel Pearl of the Wall Street Journal, whose death at the hands of Pakistani kidnappers was announced by the State Department on Thursday, was never a typical business reporter, not even in his earliest days at the country's premier business newspaper.

As the Journal acknowledged in a story published five days after Pearl, 38, was kidnapped last month, "the laid-back amateur fiddler with a reputation for forgetfulness seemed an odd addition to a newspaper with a buttoned-down corporate image."

But Pearl's unconventional personal ways helped give him an eye and an ear and a feel for the unconventional in journalism.

In a 1994 Journal article, he wrote of the Interstate Commerce Commission, "It's a place Franz Kafka would have loved." Three years later, he went to Iran to cover elections and wound up writing about people in "a small town in search of a really big floor" so they could sell the largest hand-woven carpet in the world. He also wrote about conflicting legends surrounding the Queen of Sheba and about Russian attempts to make caviar without killing the sturgeon that provides the eggs.

Pearl, who had a lively personality and an offbeat sense of humor, was popular with his peers, dating back to his school days in the San Fernando Valley.

Born in Princeton, N.J., he graduated from Birmingham High in Van Nuys before going to Stanford, where he majored in communications. He also edited the quarterly Stanford Commentary and programmed music for the campus radio station before graduating in 1985. Pearl worked on small daily newspapers in Massachusetts before leaving the Berkshire Eagle to join the Journal in 1990, clearly marked for journalistic stardom, according to his early editors.

He started in the paper's Atlanta bureau, and on an early assignment he lost his notes and had to do all his reporting over again. But he quickly established himself as a good reporter and writer and was initially known for producing what the Journal calls "A-heads," offbeat, often quirky feature stories that run in the middle of the front page.

Among Pearl's A-heads were articles on a revolutionary "pothole plugger," on the grounding of a 72-year-old stunt flier and on the disappearance and, 27 years later, the mysterious reemergence of a 235-year-old Stradivarius violin.

Pearl moved from Atlanta to the Journal's Washington bureau in 1993 and then, in 1996, he was posted to London, where he began to write about the Middle East. While on a weekend trip to Paris two years later, he went to a party and met his future wife, Mariane, a French citizen and freelance journalist, whose father is Dutch and whose mother is Cuban.

Pearl moved to the Journal's Paris bureau in 1999, and the two were married in August that year--in a wedding with a Cuban theme, in a chateau in Normandy, with Pearl playing his new mother-in-law's favorite Bach violin concerto. Mariane is now seven months pregnant with their first child.

Pearl continued to write about the Mideast from Paris and was posted to Bombay, India, as the Journal's South Asia bureau chief in December 2000. He learned to speak a little Urdu and a little Arabic, and while based in Bombay he wrote frequently about medical care for poor people in countries with AIDS epidemics, about multinational drug companies and about tensions between India and Pakistan.

Journal editors said Pearl was both cautious and experienced in reporting from dangerous places, and they noted that he helped draft the paper's safety guidelines for overseas reporters. At a pre-Thanksgiving dinner in Peshawar, Pakistan, with other correspondents, most of them eager to go to Afghanistan, Pearl was one of the few to demur. "It's too dangerous," he said. "I just got married, my wife is pregnant, I'm just not going to do it."

But two months later, Pearl did go to the crime-ridden southern Pakistani port city of Karachi to investigate possible links between a Pakistani Islamic militant leader, Sheik Mubarak Ali Shah Gilani, and Richard C. Reid, the British national accused of trying to blow up a transatlantic airliner in December by detonating explosives hidden in his shoes.

Pearl was kidnapped Jan. 23 at a restaurant to which he had presumably been lured in pursuit of his story.

After his disappearance, both his wife and Paul Steiger, the managing editor of the Journal, issued personal appeals for his safe return. Similar appeals were made by the U.S. and Pakistani governments, Amnesty International, several national and international journalism organizations and by individuals such as former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and Yusuf Islam, formerly known as pop star Cat Stevens.

A petition urging Pearl's release was signed by more than 50 foreign correspondents and distributed to many media outlets in Pakistan by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

In one message, Mariane Pearl offered to exchange her life for her husband's. In another, Steiger asked the kidnappers to communicate with him privately, and he urged them to "view Pearl as a messenger . . . [and] provide him with a detailed list of the issues and grievances that are important to you" and then release him.

Pearl often sought assignments where there was "a lack of understanding, so he could write about it," Mariane Pearl said in an interview on CNN a week after her husband was kidnapped. "We are in Pakistan today . . . because we wanted to know more about the people and write about their views and keep working on that same idea of how we're going to create a dialogue."

Pearl's last bylined story, published Jan. 14, began:

"Tensions between Pakistan and India showed signs of easing after Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf outlined a broad crackdown on religious extremists operating in his country."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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