President of Military Reporters Group Hits Blackout on Abduction

By: Joe Strupp

The president of Military Reporters and Editors (MRE), Sig Christenson, criticized U.S. media outlets late Tuesday for engaging in a two-day blackout to hide news that an American journalist, Jill Carroll, had been abducted in Iraq.

Christenson, military affairs reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and a three-time Iraq embed, said the effort to keep news about a reporter’s kidnapping from readers gives the wrong impression.

“Why isn’t somebody asking about the ethics of this?” Christenson said in a phone interview late Tuesday. “I question whether it was ethical of them to do what they did–the (abducted reporter’s) newspaper and the others that were involved in this.”

Christenson, who also served as an independent reporter (like Carroll) in Baghdad during the war, was referring to the request by the Christian Science Monitor on Saturday for other U.S. news outlets to refrain from reporting the abduction.

Carroll, a stringer for the Boston-based paper, was kidnapped Saturday during an incident in which her translator was killed. The Monitor succeeded in convincing most major U.S. news outlets to hold off reporting the story for two days, while numerous foreign news agencies and wire services broke the news via their Web sites. On Monday afternoon, the Monitor finally wrote its own story, posting a Web version that detailed Carroll’s kidnapping, but did not note the blackout. E&P first wrote about the blackout angle.

Monitor editors, and those who had taken part in the blackout at other news agencies – such as the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times – said the effort was aimed at helping to protect Carroll’s safety.

But Christenson contends that such an act of self-censorship hurts their credibility. “You’ve got to ask yourself who else we would have singled out for this special treatment?” he said. “If this happened to anyone else, they would rush it out on the wires and they should. Do we really want to put reporters in a special class when we do a story? Is it ethical to do that and is it wise?”

The MRE president argued that publicizing a reporter’s abduction may help because it shows that the abductors are holding someone who is not a danger to them, someone who is merely covering the story. “If it happened to me, I would not want to have anybody do it for me,” Christenson said. “I would prefer that I would be treated like anyone else. The more publicity there is, the better chance you have to be released.”

Carroll’s newspaper, and others who went along with the blackout, obvously strongly disagreed with this.

But Christenson cited the 2004 kidnapping of Australian journalist John Martinkus, who was seized outside a Baghdad hotel near the Australian embassy by Sunni muslims who threatened to kill him because they believed he was a CIA spy. A BBC Web account of the incident reported that they became convinced he was a journalist after Googling his name and finding stories he had done. “They Googled him and then went onto a web site – either his own or his book publisher’s web site, I don’t know which one – and saw that he was who he was, and that was instrumental in letting him go, I think, or swinging their decision,” Mike Carey, an SBS producer who worked with Martinkus, said at the time, according to AP.

“Sometimes it can help,” Christenson said about such publicity. “The insurgents watch CNN, they watch television and are very media savvy.”

But, Christenson stressed, the key objection he has to such a blackout is the way it portrays the media as giving its own members special treatment. “We already have readers who question our credibility,” he said. “In this case, there will be people who think we consider ourselves different and worthy of special treatment.” He said MRE, which recently announced plans for its annual convention in October, will likely have a panel on the issue.

“This is something that we ought to all have a serious discussion about because it will, unfortunately, come up again,” he said.


Our first story on the blackout from Monday can be found here:

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