Raising questions about a campaign of silence

July 6, 2009

For seven months The New York Times didn’t report that one of its correspondents, David Rohde, and two Afghanis who were working with him had been abducted by the Taliban. What’s more, the newspaper persuaded some 40 other news organizations that learned of their capture to say nothing.

The Times, suspecting that the kidnappers would monitor online sources, also convinced Jimmy Wales, co-founder of the information emporium Wikipedia, to kill off news about the abduction when a Wiki editor added it to the biographical entry on Rohde. Meanwhile, a Times colleague signed on as an anonymous Wiki editor and altered that same entry to play up facts that might endear Rohde to his captors and strip out information that might antagonize them, such as the fact he’d been employed by the Christian Science Monitor.

After Rohde and his interpreter, Tahir Ludin, escaped June 19, the Times defended its campaign of silence. “Times executives believed that publicity would raise Mr. Rohde’s value to his captors as a bargaining chip and reduce his chance of survival,” the paper reported. Executive editor Bill Keller, appearing on the Jim Lehrer NewsHour, said the “best advice” he and other Times brass had received “was that publicizing the case would increase, rather than decrease, the risk for our guy.”

Considering the traditional hostility of U.S. news media toward efforts to suppress news, even when publication might cause harm, the calm with which the Times’ disclosures have been met is remarkable. The Columbia Journalism Review opened up a thread to solicit reaction, and in its first week it had brought barely a half-dozen responses. Wikipedia’s collaboration seems touchier, since it involved censorship and manipulation, but even in the fractious online world the argument that Rohde’s life was at stake seems to prevail.

Indeed, it’s hard to criticize media restraint intended to prevent harm, and indeed, journalists have been murdered under just such circumstances.

Still, we have had nearly eight post-9/11 years during which major institutions have wavered from core principles out of fear of terrorist atrocities. In such cases, it’s right to ask if the fear is warranted, if the measures taken are reasonably related to it, and whether they’re compatible with the duties and responsibilities we claim to live by.

I can’t think of any instance when so many news organizations agreed to proscribe coverage of an undeniably newsworthy event because of their belief that any reporting—not just overblown reporting or details leaked from sensitive negotiations, but the mere mention—might harm one of their own. (The closest equivalent was CNN’s pre-war failure to report on brutality against its Iraqi staffers by Saddam Hussein’s henchmen, and there the embargo covered only CNN, not other media.)

In the moral pantheon, averting needless harm is a major good. How major? Suppose the Times hadn’t simply withheld true reports but deliberately published false ones to trick Rohde’s captors into freeing him. Suppose 40-some other outfits followed suit, knowing the information was false. Rohde escapes. Case closed.

Except the media would be left with huge questions of trustworthiness, truthfulness, even-handedness and precedence.

As they are here, I’m afraid. What’s needed is some serious attempt to clarify just what principles journalists should derive from this. Was Rohde uniquely vulnerable? How would publicity have “raised” his value to his captors? Doesn’t that mean they’d simply up their ransom demands, as they apparently did anyway? And wouldn’t they then be less likely, not more likely, to hurt him?

Perhaps the issue is broader: Since all hostage-taking entails a threat to kill the hostages, maybe the media should stop reporting kidnappings altogether. Don’t missionaries, aid workers and diplomats deserve the same consideration as Times correspondents?

But wait, doesn’t publicity sometimes help hostages instead of endangering them? And what about the harm done by silence—the innocents who might not have strayed into a dangerous place if they’d been forewarned?

The Times and its helpers owe the public a far more thoughtful explanation than they’ve offered so far. It’s not enough to say coverage would have complicated things. That’s what news does. But it creates opportunities as well as risks, and journalists believe that on balance the world is better off when realities are exposed instead of concealed.

There are exceptions. Media show restraint with suicides, bomb threats, rape victims, juvenile crime—and it may be time to revisit the whole matter of kidnap coverage. But that’s a very different matter from covering up news as a special favor to a powerful friend.

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