Witnesses to an Execution

A journalist is murdered, a propaganda videotape of the slaying makes the Internet, and an alternative newsweekly links to the Web site and publishes the photos. If this isn't the proper role of the media, what is?



Editor's Note: The decision by the Boston Phoenix newspaper to publish photographs from the videotaped murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl has been called one of the most controversial editorial decisions ever made by an alternative newsweekly. It also raises longstanding questions over the conflict of individual privacy and the media's duty to depict the truth. In the following essay, Boston Phoenix contributor Dan Kennedy offers his perspective. Kennedy's writings -- and other Phoenix articles about Pearl, along with a link to the videotape in question -- can be found at A link to a New York Times essay on the topic by Judea Pearl, Daniel Pearl's father, can be found at, the official Web site of the Daniel Pearl Foundation.

Not long ago, I learned the story of Alexander Katan, a Dutch-Jewish dwarf who was murdered in 1943 at the Nazi concentration camp of Mauthausen, in Austria. Katan was killed because a camp physician thought his skeleton would make an interesting specimen for his "curiosity cabinet," something he could show off to friends and colleagues. A Web site on Katan's death ( reflects this terrible reality. Staring out from the screen is Katan, dressed in prison garb, identification of some sort inscribed over his left pocket. Move the cursor over the photo and the living Katan gives way to his bones, propped up for display.

I asked Patricia Heberer, a historian at the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum, what more she could tell me about Katan. Her answer: not much. His family, she said, wanted as little attention drawn to him and his fate as possible. In fact, she told me, there is actually a third photo -- of Katan stripped naked, not long before he was killed -- that has been removed from Web sites and exhibition halls at the family's request. Thus, as horrifying as Katan's story is, private sensibilities prevent us from experiencing it in its full, unmitigated awfulness.

I don't blame the Katans for not wanting the world to see one of their family members in his worst moment of fear and humiliation. But there are times when the importance of bearing witness to evil overrides personal considerations. Alexander Katan was killed because he was a Jew and a dwarf, and because Nazi ideology so dehumanized such people that a doctor -- a doctor -- could think nothing of killing him, boiling the flesh off his bones, and sticking what was left over in a display case. Alexander Katan belongs to the ages. He belongs to us, if we're capable of understanding what he's trying to tell us.

So does Daniel Pearl.

Last month, the Boston Phoenix touched off a media controversy by publishing on its Web site a link to a four-minute propaganda video made by Pearl's captors. It is a slick and sickening production: Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter, is seen talking at length about his Jewish background while the screen is splashed with images of Palestinian suffering. He also talks about the alleged sins of the United States, comparing his own captivity to that of the Al Qaeda and Taliban militants being held at Guantanamo Bay. Then, after a quick fadeout, we see Pearl's apparently dead body lying on a floor as someone hacks off his head with a large knife. Finally, a hand holds up Pearl's head, and the anti-Israel propaganda continues to roll. "This is the single most gruesome, horrible, despicable, and horrifying thing I've ever seen," wrote Phoenix publisher Stephen Mindich in an online note headlined Thoughts on Political Pornography, which accompanied the link.

A week later, the Phoenix upped the ante, publishing two small black-and-white photos, each measuring two-and-a-half by one-and-a-half inches, from the video on its editorial page -- one of Pearl talking, the other of his severed head being held aloft.

The reaction was immediate and harsh. Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, at Harvard's Kennedy School, told the Boston Globe, "I question whether this is about news or about trying to incite hatred of the people who did this." In an online commentary, the Poynter Institute's Bob Steele wrote, "Any journalistic purpose in publishing the photos of his death is considerably outweighed by the emotional harm to Pearl's widow and family. At the least, publishing these photos is insensitive and disrespectful. It may be cruel." Vincent Alabiso, the Associated Press's executive photo editor, told the New York Times that images from the video "do nothing to advance the story," adding: "To carry something this graphic, there needs to be an explicit reason based on news."

Members of the Pearl family have been adamant in insisting that no portion of the video air -- not even the non-graphic segment of Pearl talking that CBS News aired a few weeks ago.

I have to disagree -- respectfully and with full understanding that different people are going to reach different conclusions. It's important to see the Daniel Pearl video because it's important to look into the face of the pure evil we're up against. It's important to see it because merely reading a description of it cannot do justice to its full horror. It's important to see it because we're at war -- and because this is what war looks like in 2002.

Admittedly, I am as conflicted as anyone about this -- in more ways than one. In the past, I've written that executions should be shown on live television. Yet after CBS broadcast the sanitized version of the Pearl video, I stated on Boston television that Pearl's murder should never be shown.

I'm also indirectly responsible for the Phoenix's decision to link to the video. I came across a story on regarding the FBI's anti­First Amendment attempts to keep the video off the Web. Curious, I did a Google search to see if I could find the video -- and tracked it down in just a couple of minutes. I passed it along to a few people -- including Phoenix editor Peter Kadzis, who forwarded it to Mindich. Mindich, in turn, followed the link and was so outraged that he suggested it be posted on After a quick discussion between Mindich and Kadzis, the link was up at around noon. To the extent that I can write about this with any sense of proper distance at all, it is because I have studiously avoided talking with either Mindich or Kadzis about it since the link was posted.

So why do I now support putting up the link and publishing the photos? Two reasons, really.

First, I was struck by how many critics said the video, and the stills that were run in the print edition, would cause pain to the Pearl family -- a non-argument, as far as I'm concerned. Take, for instance, an opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal, Pearl's newspaper. While conceding that the family's objections should not be "morally dispositive," columnist Tunku Varadarajan wrote that "for a responsible paper, the opinion of Pearl's widow shouldn't amount to nothing. A philosophical question is whether one's view of the Phoenix's judgment would be different if Mrs. Pearl had made no objection. It's likely it might be; and this shows that public revulsion -- often a reliable indicator of wrong or right -- rests in important measure on the hurt being heaped on Mrs. Pearl."

Well, I'm sorry, but resting one's case on the understandable objections of Mariane Pearl -- as many critics, not just Varadarajan and Steele, have done -- merely illustrates the weakness of their case. There are few businesses less sensitive to family considerations than the media, and there's a reason for that. News is often about bad things happening to good people, and families frequently object quite bitterly to the way their loved ones are portrayed. This is an issue that community journalists have to deal with far more often than national media figures and foreign correspondents; no doubt Pearl learned something about these sensitivities when he was working for the Berkshire Eagle some years ago (he also briefly worked for the Phoenix about a dozen years ago). Any photographer for a small newspaper can tell tales about the abuse he or she gets when trying to take photos at the funerals of teenagers killed in drunk-driving accidents -- photos that no one needs to see in order to understand what happened, but which are assigned for the simple reason that there is news to be covered.

Mariane Pearl's wishes get extra attention, I suspect, because her late husband was also a member of another, more influential family -- 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 the 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, "Pearl's 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 -- 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 '90s.)

Life: World War II, a 1990 compilation of photos that had been published by Life magazine, is chock full of horrifying pictures -- 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 -- a young girl burning from a United States napalm attack, running naked down a dirt road, and a South Vietnamese military officer executing a suspected Viet Cong insurgent on the spot -- 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. In 1976, the Boston Herald American's Stanley Forman 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; 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 Bryant's privacy," wrote Hal Buell in his 1999 book Moments: The Pulitzer-Prize Winning Photographs.

For that matter, the Mogadishu photo, which won the Toronto Star's 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 Watson's picture -- which was more vivid than any written report -- could anyone understand the brutality of the fighting in Somalia."

As with the photo of Ruth Snyder's 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 United State's immoral involvement in that misbegotten conflict. Stanley Forman's photo led to improved safety standards for fire escapes. Paul Watson's, 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? It's 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 has suggested that publicizing the images will call attention to the United States' 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 -- my mind, my body, my gut, my head -- and I was outraged," Mindich said. "I was astonished that there was no outrage spoken by our government, our president, our media." Referring to Pearl's 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 Tifft's 1999 biography of the New York Times' 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 didn't 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 Times' noncoverage of the Holocaust and the mainstream media's 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 didn't 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 don't 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 don't feel like it's necessary to incite those passions more than we have."

But why is it emotionally manipulative to show the terrorists who killed Pearl for exactly what they are? Isn't it more manipulative to withhold those images? In fact, what could be more manipulative than CBS's decision to show Pearl speaking, and then to fail to broadcast the most gruesome part? Does the "culture of tolerance" that Jones lauds -- and that we all value -- depend on our somehow not seeing the truth with our own eyes?

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 -- 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 site's Virginia-based service provider,, posted the video in order to make a pro­First Amendment statement.

The Phoenix is the first media outlet to place the video in its proper context -- as a piece of "political pornography," as Mindich put it, that should outrage all of us. Let's not forget, too, that Pearl's 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 ago two Holocaust survivors told me they were feeling: 'It can happen again. It has already begun.'"

Yet Herman's 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 (I've been informed) I am not to link to anything that would not show itself. I don't think anybody should be forced to watch this video, but I don't see why it should be suppressed."

Nor do I. Daniel Pearl is a martyr -- 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.

  • The Wall Street Journal

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