What I Did During the Abduction News ‘Blackout’

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By: Greg Mitchell

Nearly two days have passed since E&P reported that an extraordinary “blackout” on reporting a murder and kidnapping in Baghdad had existed in this country for about 40 hours starting Saturday night. The incident, as everyone now knows, involved the abduction of Christian Science Monitor stringer Jill Carroll and the brutal killing of one of her translators.

For some reason — perhaps because Carroll is still being held — this revelation has not produced wide commentary in media critic and blog circles, or from within the media industry. Possibly there is some confusion, with many believing that only Carroll’s name and affiliation were withheld, when actually it was any mention of the incident. In other words: a total blackout. USA Today, for example, posted a brief Associated Press item about the abduction on its Web site Saturday — and then killed the link. And AP stopped moving that item before it appeared hardly anywhere.

Or maybe it’s just no big deal and it raises no major press issues involving voluntarily holding back information from the public when lives are at stake.

A couple of top editors told E&P’s Joe Strupp that something like this has happened before, but it’s unclear what they are referring to, or how often it has occurred. Time magazine on its Web site Tuesday called it “an almost unprecedented move,” aimed at giving negotiators and rescuers time to win Carroll?s release.

It didn’t seem to work. And late Saturday, during the blackout, the U.S. military and Iraqis raided an important mosque searching for clues or perpetrators, and apparently left it in something of a mess afterward. We learned this, belatedly, Tuesday night (via wire services). In a troubling turn, Iraqis held an angry protest rally there yesterday.

I’m not sure how I feel about all this myself, but I am amazed there has been so little serious discussion of it, although E&P has received many letters from readers posing questions such as: Is it right to organize any press blackout even for a good cause? Who are they kidding — there can be no such thing as a blackout in the era of the globe-spanning Web?

Jack Shafer of Slate, one of the few to weigh in on this so far, writes, “I don’t have any easy answers, just easy questions. It’s also not clear to me whether the same set of reportorial rules currently applies to the kidnapping coverage of foreign journalists and to non-journalist foreigners in Iraq. It would be very bad news — pardon the pun — if reporters are more vigilant in protecting their own than they are non-journalists.” He added: “Sitting on newsworthy information is an unnatural act for most reporters — some would say unprofessional — and nobody can argue that the kidnapping of Jill Carroll isn’t newsworthy.”

Rather than say more at this point, I will just recount my personal interaction with this story.

It all began innocently on Sunday. Unfortunately, I try to do a little work at home every weekend, putting up a few stray or important items that I come across, usually without breaking much of a sweat or raising any ethical dilemmas. This past Sunday morning, in trolling Google News, I came across an AP item, I think from a small TV station’s site, about a female, American reporter getting abducted in Iraq, and her translator killed. Her name and affiliation were missing.

I didn’t find any other AP pickup, which seemed odd, since the incident supposedly happened on Saturday, but I found a UPI item saying much the same thing, with a couple added details.

This was a pretty hot story for a Sunday morning, and I immediately wrote up a short account, based on the two wire service reports. In the aftermath of the West Virginia mine “rescue,” I was most concerned about labeling the report “unconfirmed” in both the headline and the first graf.

Anxious to learn about any updates, and the name of the reporter, I checked back online every couple hours, and was surprised, and then amazed, to find that the wire service dispatches were not getting picked up almost anywhere in the U.S. Again with the mine rescue in mind, I worried that the story was bogus, but then I found an Agence France-Presse report from Europe, with a little more detail and a confirmation from a U.S. embassy official.

I hunted some more on the Web and found a mention at one Arab news site that the seized reporter worked for the Christian Science Monitor. This was hardly an unimpeachable source, but I went to the Monitor’s site and quickly discovered that a reporter named Jill Carroll had written stories for the paper from Baghdad just this past week. Then, searching a little more, I found Arab sites or Arab news services identifying the reporter as “Jill Kelly” or phonetically “Jil Carowel” or something like that.

So it seemed clear that someone, somewhere was putting out the name of Jill Carroll as the victim. But I didn’t even ponder printing the name — the sources were just so unknown and untrustworthy it never entered my mind.

By this time, I was finding extensive coverage of the kidnapping and killing in the British press online, though still without the I.D. of the abductee.

By the end of the night, I still couldn’t find much, if any, U.S. reporting on this. With a Black Hawk helicopter down, and 12 dead, and other pressing issues, I thought maybe the kidnapping wasn’t as big a deal as I might have thought. I assumed officials were asking the media to not print Carroll’s name, but it never occurred to me that an organized blackout might be in place — especially on a weekend. If this had been a weekday, of course, we would have made a few phone calls checking this out hours earlier.

Monday morning it really seemed suspicious when The New York Times and Washington Post did not mention the abduction at all. Arriving at the office, I asked E&P Senior Editor Joe Strupp to check it out. A little later he reported back, after talking to a Monitor spokesman: The paper had asked for, and achieved, a blackout at all major news outlets, and nearly all smaller ones. This I could surely attest to.

But now the Monitor was getting a lot of calls about the matter (how long could it last?) and in response was about to send out a release and post a story on its Web site. There seemed no point in even thinking about taking down the E&P story, which still did not name the reporter or her paper. The spokesman said we could run with their announcement about 3 p.m. on Monday.

Strupp, meanwhile, was talking to editors at some of the major papers, confirming the blackout. Some of them complained about E&P having posted a story on the abduction on our Web site. Strupp truthfully answered: We didn’t know anything about a blackout.

About this time, however, we learned from our editor-at-large in Chicago, Mark Fitzgerald, that he had received a message on his office answering machine late Saturday from a Monitor editor, asking E&P to avoid the story. But Fitzgerald didn’t check his phone messages until Monday.

At 3 p.m. we put up our full story with the first news of the blackout, which the The Monitor did not mention in its piece.

As I’ve said, there has not been much discussion about the ethics of all this since, although Shafer and Strupp’s latest story on our site about a former embed and Iraq reporter blasting the blackout, may get the ball rolling. Meanwhile, we express a fervent wish for the safe, speedy release of Jill Carroll.

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READER REACTION

Here’s a comment from Steve Lovelady, manging editor at the Columbia Journalism Review:

I dunno, Greg. Over the 22 years that I was an editor in Philadelphia, we had more than one case of law enforcement officials asking us to hold off on kidnapping news — usually in cases where they were in the process of negotiating with the kidnappers or hostage takers. My recollection is, every time, or almost every time, we did hold off.

Usually, these situations were resolved within 24 hours, so
fortunately we never got to the next step of asking ourselves for how long would we wiling cooperate with the cops or the feds. I suspect 48 hours probably would be the limit of patience.

My point is — such “blackouts” may not be as rare an occasion as E&P and its sources are treating it. My second point is, very few of these kidnap and/or hostage situations involve a reporter, yet editors still hold off … so I’m not sure the hypocrisy question [raised by Jack Shafer] is either fair or relevant.

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