Pearls of Wisdom: The Daniel Pearl Foundation and Journalistic Freedom

by Laura Umetsu and Michael Dennis Harpen, with Guest Voices Ruth Pearl and Narda Zacchino

Daniel Pearl

A little more than a decade ago in Pakistan, terrorists shocked the world when they kidnapped, tortured and murdered Daniel Pearl, a Jewish reporter for The Wall Street Journal. His widow, Mariane, was pregnant with their first child when he was killed. A bestselling book and a Hollywood movie later, Daniel’s mother, Ruth Pearl, along with Executive Director Narda Zacchino of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, now tell CGN a compelling story of rebuilding through tragedy.


Ruth Pearl, Daniel Pearl’s Mother and Daniel Pearl Foundation Co-Founder “Our goal at the Daniel Pearl Foundation is address the root causes of the hatred that took our son’s life, through education and communication.
The Daniel Pearl Foundation promotes the ideals that inspired his life and work. The Foundation works domestically and internationally to promote cross-cultural dialogue and understanding, to counter cultural and religious intolerance, to cultivate responsible and balanced journalism, and to inspire unity and friendship through music.


The Daniel Pearl Foundation offers Journalism fellowship to mid-career journalists from South Asia and the Middle East, provides high school students the opportunity to become certified PEARL by taking a course in a virtual classroom sand publishing their articles on the PEARL Youth News website. We also use music to bring “Harmony for Humanity” through the Daniel Pearl World Music Days.


We especially want to serve young people and encourage critical thinking skills, to teach them to love and respect life. People who strap bombs around their bodies and kill themselves and many innocent people, do not value their own lives.


I always remember a story I saw on the news, on television, years ago. There was a 16 year old Palestinian, who was strapped with a bomb intending to kill himself and the Israelis. The bomb did not detonate and he survived somehow and was interviewed. He was asked, “Would you explode a bomb to kill Israeli women and children?” The bomber said, “Yes.” They then asked him if he would explode himself in front of children, to kill those children, if they were Israeli. He answered, “Yes.”




Finally, when the reporter, knowing the Palestinian was a soccer player, asked him if he would try to explode himself in an Israeli soccer field, the expression on his in his face changed, and he hesitated for a moment. He shook his face saying no, he would not explode a bomb killing Israeli soccer players. I don’t know what it was, but I do know that soccer is very big in both Israel and Palestine. Killing a soccer player seemed to hit home to this young bomber. Sports and music connect people around their common humanity.



You see, it is when you do activities together, activities like soccer, music, with those who are from different religious or ethnic background you learn to respect differences. If you don’t have empathy for others, then you can’t value their life. That was Danny, with his music. He played the violin and mandolin to connect with people from around the world. He knew the power of music to bring people together.


I would recommend to young people everywhere…. Do projects with people who are different than you. Get to know them as people. As you do, you learn to see them as human beings and think before taking the life of another human being because of his/her religion or ethnicity. That is the essence of the Daniel Pearl Foundation. To educate others on overcoming differences and finding the humanity in others. In order to do to someone what the terrorists did to my son, you have to dehumanize that person first.



Life is sacred for all human beings and it is to be cherished. Danny loved life, and he wanted others to love life. He wanted others to succeed. Danny was a mentor. Journalists who knew him at the Wall Street Journal remember that on their first day, it was Danny who would approach them and ask, “How can I help you?” Danny would help on their first assignments. That is why our Foundation’s main factor is education: finding ways to build bridges across different cultures through education to bring respect for others’ lives. Music is a very powerful way to do this, to educate and bring people together, as Danny knew. I have been to so many concerts this October [for Daniel Pearl World Music Days], and have so many wonderful memories.


We also bring journalists from all over the world. One of them was a Muslim who wanted to pay her respects to Danny at his graveyard. When she came to his graveyard, she put a stone on the gravestone. She was struck with how Judaism and Islam have similar customs and dietary restrictions. They both refrain from eating pork; it is not Kosher (Jewish term), or Halal (Muslim term).




I would ask young people today to do projects together, to write essays together such their encounter or personal experiences of discrimination; through these projects,
you make friends for life. If you share books, or play music together, you can see
that this is a person, like yourself, and you can respect that person’s life and maybe learn one or two things that will enrich your life.”




Ruth Pearl has been influencing young lives through the
Daniel Pearl Foundation since 2002. She resides in
California with her husband and co-founder, Judea


Daniel Pearl at a dinner with his parents in Washington D.C. Photograph courtesy of Ruth and Judea Pearl.


Daniel Pearl with his parents, sister Tamara, and grandmother. Photograph courtesy of Ruth and Judea Pearl.


Young Jewish audience members at a Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture. Photograph courtesy of the Daniel Pearl Foundation.

Narda Zacchino, Executive Director, The Daniel Pearl Foundation

“I had been a lifelong journalist with the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle when Danny was killed. It was such a huge blow to all journalists, as it is whenever one of our own is killed in the performance of his or her job. I first became aware of the Daniel Pearl Foundation in 2007, when I was a co-sponsor of a Daniel Pearl Fellow at the San Francisco Chronicle, and then again earlier this year when I learned the position of executive director was available. I became totally engrossed in the story of the foundation and how it began, and was fortunate to be hired for the position in late March of this year. Though I did not know Danny personally, I have come to appreciate that he was a truly remarkable person of wit, talent and strong character. He really wanted to bridge cultural gaps. He wanted to use journalism and music to bring people together to create understanding among cultures, to focus on our commonalities and what brings us together rather than what separates us.


You might expect most people who loved him would turn against the people who took his life. But that did not happen. I was very taken with what his family did. Just days after learning of his brutal death, Ruth and Judea Pearl created the Daniel Pearl Foundation. Rather than seek vengeance, they created this foundation to attempt to counter the hate and violence that took Danny’s life. Through the Daniel Pearl Foundation, they hope to bring about mutual understanding. One way our foundation does this is through our Daniel Pearl Fellowship program, which brings two mid-level journalists from Muslim-dominant countries in South Asia, the area Danny covered, to work for six months at major US news organizations such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal, to experience our empowering freedom of the press. They also spend a week at the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. Most of the fellows say they never met a Jew before coming here.


Daniel Pearl Foundation Fellow Umar Cheema, of Pakistan, gives a press conference about his torture and detention by suspected ISI agents. Photo courtesy of KBLA 91.3, mid Missouri Public Radio, a division of the NPR radio network.



Some of them still blog for the weekly Journal, and several maintain a close relationship with the staff, as well as the Pearls. At the end of their fellowship they speak at a free public forum in Los Angeles sponsored by the Los Angeles Press Club. As you might imagine, the Daniel Pearl Fellows also have an impact on Americans they encounter by demystifying Muslims and the Islamic faith. The foundation pays all expenses for the Fellows, and we would like to expand this program. One of our Fellows was a Pakistani named Umar Cheema. He was a Fellow in 2008, assigned to The New York Times. He returned to Pakistan and in 2010 was writing about the conduct of the army and the intelligence services (ISI) and accusations of corruption by government officials, including the president. For that work, he was abducted, beaten and tortured over the course of seven hours by people he assumed to be with the ISI. He was warned to stop writing and was released. He later said that he was emboldened by his Daniel Pearl Fellowship experience to speak out; he filed a complaint, wrote about what happened to him, and five other Pakistani journalists came forward and reported similar experiences.




World renowned violinist and honorary Daniel Pearl Foundation board member Itzhak Perlman plays with the Oklahoma City Orchestra for the first annual Daniel Pearl World Music Days in 2002. Photo courtesy of the Daniel Pearl Foundation.



Another important foundation program focuses on music. Danny loved music of all kinds and was an honorary member of bands around the world. The year he was killed, his family decided to commemorate his birthday in October by contacting all the musicians they could find who had played music with Danny; those musicians involved their friends. That first year, there were 123 concerts in 15 countries, and Daniel Pearl World Music Days was born. This year, we surpassed 10,000 October concerts, with a total of 10,125 in 125 countries over the 10 years. Participants merely need to register their events on our site (, and then make a dedication to tolerance and our common humanity, or a variation on that theme.




I did not fully appreciate the impact of this program on individuals until I went to six concerts, five of them organized by student musicians. So here were scores of young people thinking about, endorsing, and participating in intercultural tolerance. What can be better than that? All over the world during the month of October, we have thousands of performing artists dedicating their music in memory of Danny and his legacy of cultural understanding, from these schoolchildren to Elton John, a member of our honorary committee, who delivered a lovely dedication to Danny before thousands of concert fans throughout October, as he does every year. Thousands of audience members from around the world share in the message of using music to bring people together.


Our third big program centers on dialogue. We offer lecture programs free to the public at Stanford and UCLA featuring notable journalists, statesmen, and authors. In the past, we have featured, among others, the late Christopher Hitchens, Wolf Blitzer, David Remnick, Anderson Cooper, Bernard-Henri Levy, and Christiane Amanpour, a friend of Danny. Upcoming speakers are Peter Bergen, a national security expert who wrote about the capture of bin Laden, at Stanford in November, and Condoleezza Rice at UCLA in 2013. We are looking into having more dialogue seminars with international journalists who cover the Mideast and South Asia, for example, to dissolution training, among other topics. But we will need to get such a gathering funded.


Last, we have a high school journalism training program designed not only to train and encourage young future journalists but also to teach them media literacy. It involves students and mentors who are professional journalists assigned to them in print, broadcast and other platforms. Once they complete the 4-week program, they are certified ad Daniel Pearl Youth News reporters and can write for our Pearl Youth News website. Our two most recent stories are by a teenage girl from India writing about female infanticide and a student from Pennsylvania who wrote about the influence of religion on politics. We are a magnet for idealistic interns, many of whom come to us from the website Idealist, mainly young people who want to make a difference in the world. I continue to be inspired by them and other volunteers who help us in so many ways.

The work of our foundation, and others that work for tolerance and intercultural understanding, is vital today. I heard of the recent bomb threat to LSU’s campus by a non-Muslim claiming to be a member of a terrorist organization and wanting to feed on the suspicion and fear that many Americans have felt after 9/11. It’s critical in our diverse society to have a deep understanding of different cultures so that the knee-jerk reaction is not to fear Muslims when something like this happens. We need to focus on commonalities and shared humanity rather than the hate that is exploited by fringe groups.




I remember right after 9/11, a woman walking in a crosswalk with her children in southern California was viciously attacked because she was dressed in Muslim garb. One of our volunteers is a Iranian-American Muslim who is quite secular and endures stereotypical comments about Muslims that people would not make if they knew she was a Muslim. I have an Iraqi Muslim journalist friend, who told me she was in a café taking to a friend on the phone and said “Inshallah” (God willing); all of the patrons froze in fear, and she left the café, too uncomfortable to stay. These are common experiences.



At the Daniel Pearl Foundation, we try to educate people to focus on our common humanity. The more people we can engage in dialogue, the better. I would love to expand our Fellows program and will rely upon generous donors to make it happen. To donate to the Daniel Pearl Foundation, go to, and click the donate button. All donations are tax deductible.”




Narda Zacchino is an author and journalist who served as associate editor of the Los Angeles Times and deputy editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. Zacchino was also an editor at the Center for Investigative reporting. In addition to her journalism work, she collaborated with Mary Tillman on her book, Boots on the Ground by Dusk, about Tillman’s son Pat, an NFL player who joined the Army Rangers and was killed in Afghanistan by friendly fire. Zacchino is currently a senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy and is finishing a book on California.


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