The kidnap-murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was an awful, brutal and evil act. But the wall-to-wall coverage of his abduction and death raises questions about media double standards.
Pearl, you see, wasn't the only American being held hostage by foreign thugs with suspected ties to the al Qaeda terrorist network. Since May 27, 2001, Americans Martin and Gracia Burnham have been imprisoned by the Abu Sayyaf, violent Islamic guerrillas in the Philippines who have ties to Osama bin Laden. The kidnappers have beheaded at least 13 of their hostages -- including naturalized American Guillermo Sobero last year.
Like Pearl, the Burnhams pursued their careers in a faraway land. Like Pearl, they nobly accepted danger in pursuit of a higher calling. But unlike Pearl, the Burnhams are not glamorous journalists.
They are Christian missionaries, originally from Kansas, who were on a brief vacation celebrating their wedding anniversary when they were abducted on the Philippine island of Palawan. Martin is chained to a tree at night. Gracia is gaunt and ailing. CBS's "48 Hours" program aired one of the few in-depth investigative pieces on the kidnapping last month; family members have appeared on a smattering of morning TV talk shows since then. But the Burnhams' story has not been pounded home with anywhere near the front-page fervor and compassionate media coverage of the Pearl incident.
Consider The New York Times. A Nexis search reveals that over the past two months, there were 86 references to Pearl's kidnapping and murder in the nation's newspaper of record. By contrast, a total of just 21 references to the Burnhams' plight have appeared in the paper since their capture more than nine months ago. The first staff-written story on the couple's plight did not appear in the Times until Oct. 10.
The Burnhams are members of the New Tribes Mission, a Florida-based ministry whose members help translate the Scriptures and establish local churches in the remotest areas of the world. The couple, parents of three children, moved to the Philippines in 1986. Their faith is central to their lives. But even in what little media coverage there has been of the Burnhams, their evangelical mission has been given short shrift.
As Gracia Burnham's sister noted after the "48 Hours" special aired: "We appreciated CBS giving their kidnapping attention and that they got the facts straight. But I was disappointed that they included so little about our faith. I had told them, 'You cannot tell this story without telling about our faith, because that is what gets us through every day.'" The broadcast made only a passing reference to the family's prayers.
Is it possible that apathy, if not outright antagonism, toward committed religious evangelists helps explain the difference in coverage between Pearl and the Burnhams? (Pearl was Jewish -- but it was his central identity as a journalist, and not as a Jew, that garnered overwhelming media attention when he was kidnapped.) Bernard Goldberg, author of the best-selling media expose "Bias," cites evidence of the elite media's brazen anti-religious sentiment -- from Ted Turner's reference to Catholics as "Jesus freaks" to CBS producer Roxanne Russell's casual insult of former GOP presidential candidate Gary Bauer as "the little nut from the Christian group."
The veteran CBS newsman writes that people of faith are "juicy targets" for journalists. Goldberg notes: "In a lot of newsrooms, they're seen as odd and viewed with suspicion because their lives are shaped by faith and devotion to God and an adherence to rigid principles ... that seem archaic and closed-minded to a lot of journalists who, survey after survey suggests, are not especially religious themselves." Having worked at NBC News and for two major daily newspapers, I can tell you that Goldberg is dead-on. Evangelists such as the Burnhams are treated as strange, foreign creatures. It's "them" instead of "us."
In emotional and patriotic tributes, members of the media have referred to Danny Pearl as their "brother." But what of Martin and Gracia Burnham? Are not these captive Americans our "brother" and "sister," too?