Why ‘E&P’ Went Along With Media Blackout on Kidnapping

By: Greg Mitchell

It was a happy surprise, Saturday morning, just before noon ET, to see the New York Times reveal that one of its top reporters, David Rohde, had escaped from his Taliban kidnappers, after seven months, and was now safe and unharmed. I can’t imagine how shocking this was for nearly everyone else, who had no idea he had even been kidnapped.

My magazine, Editor & Publisher, was among the media outlets aware, very early on (probably ahead of many others), that Rohde had been snatched along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. I can’t even recall how we learned of it. Like others, we did not write about it, even after New York Times editors confirmed it for Joe Strupp, off the record, of course. Times executive editor Bill Keller on Saturday told our Joe Strupp that we were among at least 40 news outlets that knew about the kidnapping.

In fact, what I witnessed in the six months after we found out about it was the most amazing press blackout on a major event that I have ever seen: at least in the case of a story involving such a prominent news outlet and a leading reporter. I wonder how strongly, if at all, this non-reporting will be criticized in the weeks to come.

Remember: when Jill Carroll was kidnapped, the Christian Science Monitor only managed to keep it a secret over a weekend. She was then held for months. Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping also emerged fairly quickly–and we all know how that one ended.

For months, I monitored Web chatter for any Rohde references. There were almost none. I never saw the kidnapping make Wikipedia, although when I went into the behind-the-scenes editing at Rohde’s page there I noted some activity, with references quickly deleted more than once. A good untold story there.

The blogosphere silence was even more astounding than the mainstream media blackout. You could say the blackout worked, or that all sorts of people, around the world, were scrupulous about this tragedy.

We did occasionally weigh going public, as months, and months passed. Every few weeks Strupp checked in with one Times editor or another. Editors explained that efforts were going on to free Rohde and it was so sensitive any news break might jeopardize this. But the editors were not heavy handed in demanding silence on our part, although they must have been worried that (even) we knew about the kidnapping. Frankly, we wondered why they weren’t more insistent — perhaps they assumed the best about their media colleagues.

If so, that faith certainly was upheld.

Strupp also talked to a top journalism ethicist, and grilled an editor for another top foreign news outlet and a foreign reporter quite aware of the Rohde situation. One editor wondered if the Times, or anyone else, was considering paying ransom money, as often happens (apparently this did not take place). He also claimed that someone at the Times had been shown a photo of Rohde in captivity and it was worrisome to be sure.

I had one major personal concern: In keeping the story secret were we jeopardizing other reporters, or even other citizens, who might be traveling in the region of the kidnapping unaware of the dangers? I feared that we were all doing a disservice to many others for the sake of, maybe, helping the cause of one reporter. My own daughter had traveled for several weeks to Afghanistan and the region just last year, so this seemed like a legit concern.

However, I was told by someone who knew the details of the Rohde episode that he had been kidnapped in a region where almost no outsider would ever dare to tread.

So, like everyone else, we kept the story secret.

I wonder now if a great debate will break out over media ethics in not reporting a story involving one of their own when they so eagerly rush out piece about nearly everything else. I imagine some may claim that the blackout would not have held if a smaller paper, not the mighty New York Times, had been involved. Or is saving this life (actually two, there was a local reporter also snatched) self-evidently justification enough?

Bob Steele, the Poynter media ethicist, summed it up well for Strupp this weekend: “News organizations are balancing competing obligations if a journalist is kidnapped or detained, The primary obligation to the public is to report accurately and timely on meaningful events. If you have a journalist who is detained or kidnapped, that will generally reach the level of newsworthiness. News organizations also have an equal obligation to minimize harm. That means showing care and caution to not further endanger someone whose life may be in jeopardy. These are competing obligations and loyalties.

“There is also a matter of fairness and consistency. Would a news organization apply different standards in the case of a government diplomat or a business executive or a tourist than they would one of their own?” But he concluded: “You should not be bound by a rigid rule. Rather you make the best journalistic decision in each case. In almost all cases, the value of a human life outweighs the value of revealing facts in a kidnapping that you would usually report.”
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Greg Mitchell is editor of Editor & Publisher. His latest book is “Why Obama Won.”

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Published: June 23, 2009

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