A Death in the Family

In the month since Daniel Pearl was kidnapped, hope built and crashed in crushing waves at the Wall Street Journal. The week before his colleagues learned of his death, when optimism was at its peak, a television truck was camped outside the Journal’s office – in anticipation, many at the paper believed, of his imminent release. Some executives at the paper even allowed themselves to speculate about the inevitable sweepstakes that would ensue when news outlets from around the world jockeyed for Pearl’s first post-release interview.

And then, cruelly, it was over. Last Thursday, at about 4:25 p.m., an e-mail from managing editor Paul Steiger and publisher Peter Kann went out to the paper’s employees, writers, editors, and executives – who’ve been housed in an archipelago of temporary quarters stretching from South Brunswick, New Jersey, to midtown Manhattan since September – announcing Pearl’s death and denouncing his murder as “an act of barbarism.”

At Canal Street, where many Journal reporters are bivouacked, the shades were lowered – the third-floor offices have large bay windows visible from Sixth Avenue – and about 50 people gathered in the “Money and Investing” area to watch the first reports on television. Deputy managing editor Daniel Hertzberg led a moment of silence. Many reporters cried. By five o’clock, the newsroom was back to work, with reporters putting out calls and editors moving copy. That evening, another e-mail went around: “Anyone who wants to avoid the camera crews in front of the building can use the garage exit.”

The reporters of the Journal, even more than those of other major papers, are trained to stay in the background. It’s a trait that’s exemplified by the plainspoken Steiger, and his obvious discomfort at being in the limelight has bonded him closely with his employees. On Thursday night, he was to have received the National Press Foundation’s Editor of the Year award in Washington, in large part to honor his leadership in putting out a paper on September 12. On September 11, Journal staffers briefly feared Steiger might have been buried by the rubble; instead, he was massing reporters on the banks of the Hudson, strategizing how best to proceed.

Danny Pearl’s death is only the latest of the Journal’s travails. “This paper’s been to hell and back,” said one reporter. In January 2001, aerospace writer Jeff Cole died in a plane crash. “There was an unbelievably emotional ceremony in the Marriott hotel last year,” said the reporter. Over the summer, there were layoffs. And in the fall, deputy national editor Rich Regis – who had been Cole’s editor – was hospitalized with vasculitis, a potentially fatal respiratory illness doctors think may have been caused by dust and chemicals from the World Trade Center disaster. Already people are worrying about whether their old offices will be safe when the paper is scheduled to return sometime this summer. Reporter Carlos Tejada is spearheading a campaign to make sure no one is moved back to the World Financial Center before it’s safe. “People are concerned,” he said on Thursday. “It’s not like we’re tourists taking pictures and going home,” he said. “The fear is that we’ll be moved in while there are still poisons in the air.”

“Psychologically, we’ve been hammered,” another Journal reporter said from the Canal Street office on Friday morning. (The staff had been uncharacteristically asked to refer all calls about Pearl to a company spokesman.)

“There’s kind of a what-the-fuck-else-can-happen attitude,” the reporter continued. “We thought things were getting better,” said another.

Now Danny Pearl, with his wit and many skills, and his boyish openness, and his humanitarianism, is helping the Journal define itself. “If someone had to be the public face of what we’re like,” one reporter said, “it did us proud that it was Danny. He made us all look good.”

A Death in the Family