Hard News

The Wall Street Journal has endured terrorism, the murder of a star reporter and hundreds of layoffs. Keeping things together is the paper's highly respected editor

Paul E. Steiger.

October 24, 2002|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

Any good editor - and it's widely agreed that Paul E. Steiger is one - would cringe at the phrase "roller coaster ride," especially if it were being used to describe what his newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, has gone through in the past two years.

For one thing, it's a cliche. For another, it's inaccurate. Roller coaster rides have some amusing stretches. Roller coaster rides don't leave scars. Roller coasters, as a rule, don't descend into the depths of hell.

Again and again since 2001, it has seemed as if that's where Steiger and his staff were. For hours, days and sometimes weeks on end, the newspaper whose normally chaotic daily mission is to make sense out of events was bombarded by events that made none.

Consider what Steiger, in Baltimore this week to address the Associated Press Managing Editors conference, and the nation's second-largest newspaper went through just between January 2001 and February 2002: Journal aerospace editor Jeff Cole killed in the crash of a jet piloted by a CEO he was interviewing; 300 layoffs and rumors of more; its headquarters across from the World Trade Center left in ruins after the terrorist attacks; the terrorist kidnapping, public threatening, killing and dismemberment of one of its most beloved reporters, Daniel Pearl.

One weekend in March - as if to underline the paper's run of misfortune - staffers had to choose between conflicting memorial services: one for Pearl in Los Angeles, another in New York for David Rosenberg, the managing editor of Wall Street Journal Television News who died after battling brain cancer.

It is little wonder that when the paper was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in April for its coverage of the terrorist attacks - all accomplished without use of its primary newsroom - the celebration was more subdued than in years past. Journalism's most prestigious honor notwithstanding, the real achievement may have been just staying on track.

No one person is more responsible for that, staffers say, than Steiger, the 60-year-old Bronx-born, Yale-educated managing editor under whose 11-year tenure the Journal has won 12 Pulitzers.

"Paul is what held us together," said Alan Murray, who as the paper's Washington bureau chief, organized its Sept. 11 coverage. "Everyone respected Paul; everyone wanted to get this done for him."

Murray, now Washington bureau chief for CNBC, said Steiger showed the same calm and compassionate leadership five months later.

"He was down here in Washington the day we heard Danny Pearl was dead ... and not just dead, but that he had been dismembered in the most gruesome way imaginable. Paul spoke to the whole staff, then went outside and faced the cameras. He showed amazing strength, and amazing integrity. ... He is an exceptional man: steady, wise, fair."

For Steiger, the two experiences were "very opposite in many ways. "

"The similarity is that you're experiencing horror that is inflicted on innocent people by people with a truly barbaric cast of mind," he said. "With Sept. 11, there was an adrenaline pumping, and all kinds of things to do. With Danny's kidnapping, it was frustration - there was nothing we could do - and our failure to convince the folks who had taken him that it would be pointless to harm him."

Journal editors on Jan. 24 received word that Pearl, 38, the paper's South Asia bureau chief, had not returned from Karachi, Pakistan, where he had gone to arrange an interview with an Islamic fundamentalist. On Jan. 27, the paper was e-mailed photos of Pearl, including one with a gun aimed at his head. The kidnappers claimed Pearl was a CIA agent and demanded the release of Pakistanis detained at an American military base in Cuba.

For nearly a month, Steiger spent most of his time trying to get Pearl back - four nerve-wracking weeks in which there would be erroneous reports that Pearl had been shot, followed by revelations he was alive, followed by proof, on videotape, that he was dead and had been beheaded.

The identification was made by then-foreign editor John Bussey, one of several editors to have viewed the videotape. Steiger was not among them.

"I prefer to remember Danny the way he was," said Steiger, who was in Washington to receive the National Press Foundation's Editor of the Year award that day. "Not in the way he was treated."

Both those who work for him, and those he has worked for, view Steiger as solid, straightforward and caring.

"He has always been a humane and compassionate boss," said Norman Pearlstine, the former Journal managing editor who is now editor-in-chief for Time Inc. "If you had to pick somebody to withstand all that - 9/11, losing your newsroom, the recession, the loss of Danny Pearl - he would be the one."

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